Australian NRL players are concerned over a proposal that could result in them playing more matches than ever before, causing potential burnout. The Australian Rugby League Commission’s final offer to the players’ union includes a clause that could increase the regular season to at least 26 matches per club. Currently, each team plays 24 games before the finals. The addition of this clause has sparked backlash, as players already have a busy schedule with All-Stars matches, pre-season challenges, regular season games, and potential end-of-season international matches. There are worries about player workload and the potential impact on player health and safety.
According to a leaked email seen by the media, the Rugby League Players’ Association expressed concerns about the clause. They stated, “The NRL want to be able to add two more rounds to the NRL schedule without the agreement of the players. This would place a health and safety risk on players and is a clear player workload issue.” The players’ association believes that the NRL should work together with the players to create a schedule that respects player well-being and career longevity.
Under the proposed increase, a player could potentially be involved in 30 matches, excluding pre and end-of-season commitments, if their team reaches all four weeks of the finals. However, there is also potential for a more balanced NRL draw if an 18th team is added, possibly by 2026, which would result in 25 matches per club. This could allow the NRL to split the competition into two conferences of nine teams, with rivalry matches in Sydney.
NRL officials have denied immediate plans to increase the length of the NRL season but have acknowledged the possibility of consultation with players if the season were to be extended by one or two games. They have emphasised that the negotiated player payment deal between 2023-27 is a landmark one, with an increase in annual leave entitlements for experienced players.
While the players’ union has agreed to future salary cap and minimum wage levels, there is still tension between the players and the administrators running the sport. The media blackout, in which players will not speak to broadcasters or other outlets on match days, has received criticism from coaches like Ricky Stuart of the Canberra team, who believes the players are being used in this regard.
Another potential consequence of the ongoing dispute is the impact on the international game. A planned tri-nations tournament featuring Australia, Samoa, and New Zealand at the end of the year is still uncertain. The International Rugby League is frustrated by not being included in the negotiations and believes the delay in resolving the dispute is costing the international game valuable opportunities for growth and development.