Players set to get their just rewards

THE image of Rupert Murdoch as Santa Claus is not one the notoriously hard-nosed media baron would normally elicit, but to Australian rugby league players he is the jolly fat guy, the Easter Bunny and a fairy godfather all rolled into a very large walking chequebook.

Murdoch's formation of a Super League and his head-to-head confrontation with the Australian Rugby League (ARL) - for 88 years the sole arbiters and administrators of the game Down Under - has set in train an avalanche of cash which may ultimately sweep the game away.

Forget, for the moment, the reason for the confrontation - television rights.

For the first time in the history of the professional game the reason for its popularity and the essence of the product, the players, are in a position to reap a reward far beyond that which the formerly monopolistic administrators were willing to allow.

Allegations that players who have joined Murdoch's league are traitors who have sold out tradition and their mates are nothing more than emotive rubbish.

Players have only one asset for sale - their talent - and that is a fragile and short-lived thing.

Under the auspices of the ARL, rugby league in Australia has been run as a tightly controlled cash cow from which long-term administrators have earned a comfortable and prestigious living.

That they have brought the game out of the days of a social, if large, sporting organisation to a multi-million dollar business enterprise is not in question.

What has long been questioned is the equity of the ARL's sharing of the massive profits which have flowed from the game's increasing popularity.

While the ARL ran the only game in town the best of the players had no choice - they played under the restrictive regime or they didn't play, at least not at a level their talents warranted.

Individual clubs - nominally the employers of the players who were bound under ARL contracts - operated under salary caps set by the ARL.

Last season the caps averaged A$1.6 million.

Within that figure the clubs had to bid for and retain a playing staff of 52 in three grades.

The ARL did not need to support or develop player talent.

For the lucrative State Of Origin and international matches the ARL simply took the talent from the clubs.

They did not pay the clubs for the talent, nor did they richly reward the selected players.

They paid a wage and fostered the image of elitism, the chosen few honoured by the ARL.

When the representative season was finished the players were returned to their clubs. If they were injured that was just too bad. Compensation was not a concept the ARL had even a passing association with.

So while the ARL prospered and through the salary cap protected their greatest asset - the clubs who discovered, nurtured and provided the talent which is the game - from player bidding wars and spiralling costs, even the top echelon of players earned no more than A$150,000 to A$250,000 a season from playing.

Good money by Australian sporting standards but a pittance by international measures where anything less than seven-figure salaries denotes failure.

Then along came Murdoch.

Now players, both those who have signed with Murdoch and those who stayed with the ARL, have signed contracts 300 to 400 per cent higher than anything they could have dreamed of.

Like Kerry Packer and cricket almost two decades earlier, Murdoch wanted something somebody else had.

And like the world's cricketing authorities, all the ARL have left to bargain with is tradition - and even that is no longer a major card in the pack.

The official rugby league bodies of Great Britain and New Zealand have already been persuaded to Murdoch's point of view.

What remains to be seen is whether the game itself can survive the inflationary spiral which has been unleashed.