The Loss Of Israel Folau Is A Symptom Of A Much Bigger Issue The Game Needs To Address

When Israel Folau reached out to the Parramatta Eels and told them he wanted to come back and play Rugby League for them, it put a number of different elements onto an eventual collision course that ironically would see Folau decide to turn his back on Rugby League once again,

Folau’s decision to turn his back on one of the biggest contracts in AFL history to return to Rugby League for a fraction of the price was solid gold in terms of marketing for Rugby League. The AFL released Folau and even gave him a payout on part of his contract. Many saw this as a gesture of good will, I tend to believe it was more a gesture to try and make the move as quick and as painless as possible.

When he left Rugby League Folau was a great player. One of those rate “hyper athletes” that were physically able to do things even the best players in the world would marvel at. His loss was a blow to Rugby League in that Folau had a gift, he was a player the likes of which I don’t think we have seen in Rugby League before. The youngest player ever to pull on an Australian test jersey, to see his Rugby League career end so quickly was a real shame.

As every former great will tell you, this is a sport that moves on very quickly. As Folau aimlessly ran around AFL fields and had to deal with a sport that saw his Polynesian heritage as a curiosity, Rugby League kept powering along. Eventually, Folau got to the point where money couldn’t buy his happiness  He reached out to Ricky Stuart, allegedly with much emotion, and the wheels were set his motion for his return to the game he loves.

With a new broadcasting deal in place, the NRL tentatively told clubs to expect the 2013 salary cap to be set at $5 million dollars. This was a marginal increase on the salary cap in 2012 that had been put in place under the old deal. Players have been told for over a decade that they need to accept less money because the game simply didn’t have the money to pay them any more. To the players credit, the vast majority have accepted the situation. They met with the NRL a number of times over the years and once shown the black and white figures, the players accepted that their calls for a pay increase would have to wait.

The new broadcasting deal more than doubled the amount of money the NRL received under the previous broadcasting deal. This was it for the players, the money was finally there to reward them for their years of patience, not to mention the hard work they put in on the field which ultimately led to the increased money in the game.

When the NRL came back to clubs with such a paltry increase in the salary cap, players were not happy. Negotiations are still continuing and there is finally more wide spread talk of strike action, something I was the first to write about.

With no salary cap figure set for 2013, and no Collective Bargaining Agreement in place between the Players Association and the NRL, tensions began to rise. Money became a big focus of everyone within the game and the feeling that players were being poorly treated by the NRL and shot changed began to rise.

Let me tell you right now, this is a very big issue among players. To their credit, they are not asking for anything unreasonable  They have resisted the urge to even mention strike action. I have nothing but admiration for our current group of NRL players. They are putting the welfare of the game before themselves. They love this game and they want to see it prosper. All they want is a fair, reasonable salary cap increase. What they are asking for the NRL can easily, very easily afford.

All of this has created an environment where players are talking about what they are worth. If you are Israel Folau, and you just walked away from a contract of well over a million dollars a year, and you are talking to current NRL players talking about how they are being screwed over by the NRL with these drawn out salary cap negotiations, and your manager comes back and tells you he has a massive offer on the table for you to go and play Rugby Union overseas….how long would it be before you decided to leave this mess behind and take the massive, straight forward contract from the as yet unnamed Rugby Union club?

Israel Folau is a Rugby League player. The last few years have proven that beyond a doubt. He came back to Rugby League, and this sporting giant that will be generating around $300 million dollars a a year starting from next year couldn’t find the money he was worth. It was more difficult for him to play Rugby League than it was any other sport he chose. His contract was going to have to be more complicated and it was going to be worth less than any other alternative out there.

This is a major problem Rugby League needs to address. Worst of all, it is a situation that doesn’t have to be! The NRL has the money. They could double the salary cap and would still have the money left to double spending in other areas of the game. Players are not asking for a rise that dramatic.Yet here we are,. by far and away the most wealthy, financially stable “Rugby” competition on the planet, and players are financially better off leaving the NRL to play Rugby Union overseas.

Israel Folau doesn’t want to play Rugby Union. He wants to play Rugby League. While it is easy to attack him and his manager for the way they have behaved over the last few weeks, we need to look back on why they came to the decision they have over the last 48 hours.

There is a reason why so many Rugby League players in recent years have gone on to play so many other sports. There is also a reason why so many other sports have welcomed these players with open arms and made it as easy and profitable for them to make the switch. Rugby League in Australia and New Zealand is producing so many world class athletes that other sports are tapping into it to capitalize on the wealth of talent.

For a decade, there was nothing Rugby League could do. The money to keep players just wasn’t there. Now, it is. Now the NRL is easily the most wealthy “Rugby” competition in the world. If you don’t think Sonny Bill Williams is worth $1 dollars per year go and ask the New Zealand Rugby Union how much they felt he was worth to them. They valued him so much they were happy to see him go and play for a season with the Sydney Roosters, at the end of which they will welcome him back with open arms and a salary that will dwarf what he will be on in the NRL.

I’m really disappointed that I won’t see Israel Folau play in the NRL next season. I can understand why he decided to take a much bigger offer to play Rugby Union overseas. I hope he comes back and I think it won’t be too long before he tells his manager that the money isn’t enough and to go and find him another NRL team for him to play for.

Most of all, I hope that by the time he makes that decision, Rugby League players get paid what they are worth. I hope that the easiest option for our elite Rugby League players is to sign with a Rugby League club.

That is what I want, that is what they want, and the money is there to make it happen.

Now it is up to the Rugby League Players Association and the NRL to make that happen.

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