The decision by the NRL to block Benji Marshall’s Japanese rugby sabbatical is at odds with the very premise upon which rugby league was born.
It started at the end of the 19th century. Rugby players from the north of England wanted ‘broken time payments’ to compensate for lost wages when playing or when injured.
The history is well known to the rugby league faithful. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) in the south wanted to maintain the amateur ethos of the game and refused to allow players to be paid.
As a result the clubs of the north broke away, forming the Northern Rugby Football Union and soon rugby league began.
In Australia, the New South Wales Rugby Union was deriving a substantial income from rugby tours yet the players received none of the gate takings.
The establishment was denying the players an opportunity to maximise their income. It was a ‘bone of contention’ among rugby players and provided an opportunity for an enterprising group to set up rugby league.
Their master stroke was to recruit the talented Dally Messenger. Soon, rugby league was to become the dominant rugby code in Australia and those that left rugby union were referred to as traitors.
Looking back from a modern view point it seems short sighted that rugby remained so stubborn. The idea of amateurism appears noble, but was not practical.
The truth of the matter was that it was never really about the players. It was about power. The north versus the south in England and an enterprising group in Australia who saw an opportunity to make money.
Fast forward to today. Both rugby union and league are professional sports. Australian rugby league players are well paid but there is an opportunity to make substantially more money by playing rugby union in Japan or France.
If they leave the game of rugby league, they are referred to as traitors.
However one enterprising individual, Benji Marshall, wants to remain in rugby league but wants to use the off season to play rugby union in Japan.
He wants to maximise his income during the short period he can be a professional athlete.
However, the NRL has blocked the move saying it would breach the salary cap. The salary cap is a convenient road block, but that’s not what it is really about.
Once again it’s about power.
Understandably the NRL wants to control the players and they don’t want them ‘defecting’ to a rival. The circumstances are different but are today’s Australian rugby league administrators being as stubborn as the late 19th century rugby administrators?
If I was working for the NRL I too would have blocked Benji’s move. Most would, so let’s ignore the simplistic analogy of working for Pepsi when you’re contracted to Coke. There is something more here.
The parallels between the broken time payments and today’s salary cap are eerily similar. The players are upset with the establishment and they want money, but instead of the RFU it’s the NRL and instead of the values of amateurism restricting money, it’s a salary cap restricting the amount of money a player can earn.
Should a player be able to earn more money or should they up hold the values that are essential to the code?
If you’re a rugby league supporter, whose side are you on this time, the establishment or the players? What’s more important, the players or the sport?
Perhaps Benji should ask himself, ”what would Dally M do?”