KICKOFF: NRLW contract system takes female stars for granted

STRAIGHT SHOOTER: Broncos, NSW and Jillaroos star Millie Boyle has highlighted the flaws in the NRWL 'talent equalisation' contract system. Picture: NRL Imagery
STRAIGHT SHOOTER: Broncos, NSW and Jillaroos star Millie Boyle has highlighted the flaws in the NRWL 'talent equalisation' contract system. Picture: NRL Imagery

IMAGINE for a second, that the end of this season rolls around and the wildly-exciting Tyrell Sloan has claimed the Dragons No. 1 jumper fulltime.

Corey Norman has been injured (or dropped) and fellow Illawarra Steelers product Junior Amone has found a home at No. 6.

By the end of 2022, they're stars. It's not hard to fathom, right?

Now imagine this, a month before the 2023 season, the NRL comes in and says one or both have to move to the new second team in Brisbane.

They have no choice, the Dragons have no recourse, it's just done in quick time. They can knock back the move and stay, but they'll cop a significant pay cut if they do.

The uproar would be deafening, right? Yet, as the new NRLW season looms, that's precisely what the NRL has done with its elite women's competition.

The system, as it can be best understood, will see the NRL hand out 24 elite-player contracts with four to be 'distributed' to each club. It's a condition placed on the 'tier-one' contracts that provide the maximum $28,000 deal.

Clubs can also recruit one of six 'tier-two' free agents on less lucrative deals. Tier-one players who knock back their initial allocation can become free agents, but must forgo the more lucrative tier-one contract.

Reports are conflicting. Depending on who you listen to, players are either fully in favour of it or dead against it - though one senses it's skewed toward the latter.

You can believe it's caused a stir among the game's elite players, though not many will be willing to speak about it publicly for fear of appearing ungrateful or unappreciative of the opportunity to play in a national league.

That's what really makes it tough to swallow, players have concerns but are unlikely to voice them. Who's going to come out publicly to say they don't want to be at a team they may end up at without a choice anyway?

NSW and Brisbane star Millie Boyle bucked that trend this week, revealing she'd knocked back her "allocation" to the Titans due to a desire to stay with the Broncos.

"It's almost like a band-aid approach," Boyle said.

"You just have to cop that you will be developing for one or two years and invest in the players you want to bring up. It's like if you were to bring in a new NRL team, you're not going to break up the Storm.

"Are you going to give all their players to fix the (Wests) Tigers?"

That's the key question. Would the NRL impose such a system on its men's competition? Would the best prop in the NRL be told he had to play somewhere else or have a pay cut imposed to stay at the club at which he's played his whole career?

Spread of talent is essential to viability of any competition, but there were plenty of other ways the NRL could have gone about it in consultation with its players. Instead it's just dumped an expanded competition with a convoluted and grossly flawed contracting system on clubs barely a month's notice.

We've been here before. Those in the know will recall when the NRL suddenly called for expressions of interest for the inaugural 2018 season. Momentum had been building towards a national women's competition, but all the indications from NRL HQ were that it would first come through state competitions with a view to going national in 2019.

However, faced with the perception it was lagging behind the AFLW, it went ahead and announced the new national competition, leaving clubs in a mad scramble to put together submissions and - crucially - find the cash for it in a matter of months.

Worth it now you reckon? They should have just waited a couple of years and been gifted a readymade roster they didn't need to develop.

Clubs bidding for the inaugural licenses also had to present a demonstrated history of their development efforts, and outline a plan to further develop the game in their regions moving forward. It's now set up in a way that completely dis-incentivises player development and punishes the inaugural clubs who've taken that approach.

The Illawarra region alone has produced 25 Jillaroos, including original stars like Nat Dwyer, Tarsha Gale and Julie McGuffie.

The most recent, Shakiah Tungai, was spotted by present Steelers Tarsha Gale Cup coach Alicia-Kate Hawke playing for the Illawarra South Coast Dragons and was nurtured through the Dragons NRLW system to a Jillaroos jumper.

Between them, the St George Dragons and Illawarra Steelers have won the past two Tarsha Gale Cup premierships.

The Steelers have reached the finals every year of the competition, with the likes of Keeley Davis, Rikeya Horne, Maddie Weatherall and Teagan Berry coming through those ranks in recent seasons to play NRLW.

Before that, the likes of Sam Bremner and Kezie Apps came through the Illawarra competition to play NRLW but were first employed as club ambassadors two years before it.

What is the point of any of it, if those products can just be plucked away at the elite level without any regard to their own choices?

The "talent-equalisation" system is not just flawed at the top end. Like most systems created in haste, it's the players on the fringe who get the rawest end of the stick.

PATHWAY: Illawarra Steelers have featured in the finals of every Tarsha Gale Cup, claiming the premiership in 2019. Picture: NRL Imagery

PATHWAY: Illawarra Steelers have featured in the finals of every Tarsha Gale Cup, claiming the premiership in 2019. Picture: NRL Imagery

In addition to the 24 elite player contracts, clubs are also operating under a points cap - placing players on a sliding 10-point scale based on rep levels they've reached.

The top 24 players are made up of both Australian and Kiwi Ferns players. There'll be 34 players in action in Friday night's women's State of Origin clash alone.

They, of course, can't all feature on the top 30 list, but they'll still carry up to nine points on that 10-point scale. It makes a host of the game's best players a burden on the points system without entitlement to the maximum financial deals.

For some, it's essentially a punishment for reaching the rep arena. Worse still, fringe players who've just cracked the NRLW the past few seasons are also allocated points that will force clubs into tough decisions over whether to give them another shot or bring in a fresh wave of rookies carrying none.

All too often we see male players regret their own choices in a free market and kick stones agitating via managers to get them out of a deal they signed, one with all the protections but, seemingly, none of the obligations.

Just like they don't produce off-season "summers from hell," it's unlikely we'll see our elite female players replicate that behaviour. It's why they don't deserve to be taken for granted in a contract system that doesn't respect them enough to make their own choices.

This story KICKOFF: NRLW contract system takes female stars for granted first appeared on Bega District News.