Officials are set to put an offer to a heavy-hitting group of players including Jarryd Hayne, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston at a critical and potentially explosive collective bargaining agreement meeting in Sydney today.
The move will come after NRL interim chief executive Shane Mattiske's concession on Thursday the administration was not bound to a $5 million salary cap for next year. However the potential for breathing room has been clouded by the clubs, who are understood to have voted during a chief executives meeting on Wednesday for the cap to be set at $5 million, flying in the face of the players.
It is believed only two club bosses voted in favour of the cap rising from $5 million; Parramatta, who are trying to secure Israel Folau, and Manly, who are in negotiations with salary cap auditor Ian Schubert over the registration of fullback Brett Stewart's contract.
Should the NRL officials follow the clubs' vote with the offer of a $5 million cap today, they will be likely met with anger from the players - Smith, Thurston, Hayne as well as Robbie Farah, Michael Crocker, Jason King, Tim Mannah and Clint Newton are due to attend the meeting at Rugby League Central. There was still a hope from others close to the negotiations that the NRL will put forward an offer higher than $5 million.
Many of the players due to attend the meeting were planning to meet on Friday morning to devise a strategy.
The association has been pushing for a $6.5 million cap to be divided among an increased squad of 30 players, but it is unlikely the union will succeed with that request, even given the $1.025 billion broadcast rights deal that has prompted the players asking for more.
Mattiske's wording was careful on Thursday, regularly suggesting only that a cap increase for next year was possible, but maintaining that the clubs had agreed to a $5 million ceiling. But he did ultimately concede that an increase was ''possible''.
''It's possible that it could change,'' he said. ''It's certainly something they've raised.'' Players' association chief executive David Garnsey said on Thursday he was unaware of what would be put to him and the players today but he expected an offer to be made.
''We have no interest in doing anything other than making significant progress,'' Garnsey said.
Mattiske hoped similar headway could be made, saying the negotiations - which have stalled the progress of Parramatta's desire to sign the former AFL player Folau - were a ''critical focus for us''.
''The CBA is our No.1 priority,'' Mattiske said. ''It's the focus of our business to bring this to a conclusion as quick as we can, and it is the focus of the players' association as well. We think we can make some significant progress [on Friday], but there is a lot of detail to go through ... [but] there's a strong focus on bringing those negotiations to a conclusion as soon as we can.''
What is also yet to be determined is whether the club grants - now set at $7 million - would rise in line with any cap increase. Cash-strapped clubs - which will be represented by Bulldogs boss Todd Greenberg at Friday's meeting - would push for the ARL Commission to foot the bill.
Mattiske said the administration was taking a ''longer-term view'' to the salary-cap negotiations.
''We want to see a number locked in for the longer term, beyond 2013,'' he said. ''It's important we have that certainty.''
The interim boss also said he did not believe a strike was a potential outcome should talks continue to drag on, describing the negotiations so far as ''positive''. ''I don't believe that's part of the discussion,'' he said.
Mattiske said talk of a boycott of February's All Stars match was not ''reflective of the spirit of the discussions we're going through''.
''In these sort of negotiations, there's always going to be speculation,'' he said. ''The fact is, we're deep in negotiations, and those negotiations are being handled in a positive way.''
NSW coach Laurie Daley, a former Indigenous All Stars coach, said: ''I think that'd have to be their last option. I just can't see it happening.'
- Sydney Morning Herald