Wests Tigers' apparent reluctance to re-sign Benji Marshall long term is partly related to the new collective bargaining agreement where clubs must now pay out the full value of the contract in the event of a player suffering a career-ending injury.
Some clubs will be reluctant to sign a veteran player to a long-term deal, knowing he is more vulnerable to a career-threatening injury and aware he must be paid in full if unable to play out the final years of his contract.
Wests Tigers paid $250,000 out of last year's salary cap and will pay $100,000 this year and $60,000 next year for players no longer at the club.
Long-term backloaded contracts for ageing players will be a casualty of the new agreement.
Wests Tigers' marquee signing, captain Robbie Farah, 29, recently re-signed on a four-year deal, but he will be required to undergo a stringent medical examination every year.
Marshall is a year younger, yet Wests Tigers will only upgrade his existing two-year deal, rather than proceed with a new four-year one.
Prior to the recent collective bargaining agreement, the relationship between clubs and players resembled that between master and labourer at a 19th century US cotton plantation.
An NRL club was able to terminate the contract because of "incapacity" (long-term injury) or "health risk" (career-ending injury or medical condition) and, depending on the term of the contract and the extent of the player's participation, the club was liable only for a minimum of a quarter of the player's playing fee in the year his career ended, plus one quarter of his playing fee for two more seasons.
Suppose a player on a four-year deal, worth $300,000 a season, was injured early in the first year of the contract.
The club was obligated to pay him a quarter of his fee ($75,000) for that season and a further quarter of the value of the next two years of the contract ($150,000), meaning he collected $225,000, instead of $1.2 million.
Insofar as an NRL player only goes around once – and it's a short trip – together with the fact professional athletes in Australia are excluded from statutory workers' compensation schemes, the Rugby League Players' Association and their chief executive, David Garnsey, argued the protection of players who suffered injury was inadequate to safeguard their financial well-being.
The NRL agreed, possibly aware that AFL, rugby union and soccer players were not subject to these provisions, meaning rugby league was at risk of players defecting to other codes.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the NRL agreed to remove the provision allowing a club to terminate a contract for "health risk" and to replace the "incapacity" provisions relating to termination for injury.
For a player who suffers either a non-career-ending injury or a career-ending injury when training or playing, his contract will remain on foot.
That is, the player will be entitled to be paid his playing fee for the balance of the term despite the fact he may no longer be able to play a minute of rugby league.
When Garnsey's senior players were negotiating the agreement, they did not anticipate this would be a disincentive to signing ageing players to long-term contracts.
Some clubs obviously agree. The Storm are renegotiating the contract of Queensland and Australian captain Cameron Smith who turned 30 two weeks ago.
While the Storm and other clubs are aware the skill and durability of players will decline once past 30 years of age, Melbourne know the veterans can play a vital role with mentoring younger players both on and off field.
Furthermore, they also play a role commercially if they are high profile, attracting top sponsors.
But if the player's motivation in signing a long-term deal is to, say buy a new house and impress his bank with his guaranteed ability to repay the loan, the club won't sign him long term.
Marshall has been a passionate supporter of Wests Tigers, making sacrifices when money was tight, but salary cap space is the most valuable asset in the NRL and it seems the only senior players receiving long-term contracts are those who clubs expect to use in another capacity once their playing days are over.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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