IWD: NRL's come so far, but there's still so far to go

Each International Women's Day I try to take a moment to pause and reflect because over my decade long involvement in sport a lot has changed.

When I first started writing about rugby league, I wrote about women I could see involved in the game. That basically extended to women involved in administration and the media and women as volunteers and fans.

Rugby league is in a different place now with women involved in every facet of the game.

Importantly, the National Women's Rugby League Premiership continues to grow as a competition and means the next generation of girls can compete in a complete pathway and aspire to play in the NRLW. More importantly it's a signal to the next generation that rugby league is a sport for everyone and that women and girls can be strong, physical and competitive, just like their male counterparts.

But despite how much progress has been made, there continues to be work to do and there was no clearer demonstration of this than the protracted nature of the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

In principle agreement has finally been reached, but the way we got there left many of our female players in an extremely vulnerable position and speaking out about it.

The current CBA expired on October 31 2022. The reality is, four months later, the CBA is still not finalised.

Whilst it's a challenge for the men, it's more challenging for the women. For the men, most of whom are on long term contracts, the existing CBA can continue to apply until the new one gets signed.

But for the women, almost all of whom were on 12 month contracts, they were left completely unprotected.

So what? Is it a big deal considering the NRLW hasn't started yet?

It is a big deal, because many women were still playing rugby league at the elite level.

Fortunately there were no significant injuries at the Rugby League World Cup or the All Stars fixture, but if there had been, that player would have been unlikely to secure a contract for this season because which club is going to sign an injured player?

An injury would have been a double whammy for our female players because any injury not only impacts their ability to play footy, but in most cases also impacts their ability to do their jobs (which they juggle in addition to elite sport).

Just on the RLWC, Millie Boyle made the decision to withdraw from the Australian Jillaroos squad because she was unable to take that much time off work.

Whilst this was Boyle's choice, when she made that decision there had still not been agreement on how much the Jillaroos would be paid for their RLWC campaign. Two weeks out from the campaign, we were asking women to take a month off with no agreement on how they would be compensated. This is a situation that would be unfathomable for the male players.

What was encouraging during the negotiations was to finally see some male players speak out about the predicament our female players found themselves in, most notably Christian Welch. I hope this advocacy continues and we continue to see the male players speak with authority on the women's game.

But at least now we have in principle agreement and whilst I want more detail, what I see is positive.

Under the proposed agreement, the salary cap will increase from $350,000 to $900,000 in 2023 and continue to increase over the next five years. By 2027, the expectation is that the salary cap will reach $1.518 million and see an increase in minimum salary of $30,000 in 2023 to $50,600 by 2027.

Pay is important, but equally important are the building blocks behind the scenes which ensure players are supported on and off the field. Players are expected to receive private health insurance and increased job security with the ability to sign more than 12 month contracts from 2023 going forward. Players will also have access to wellbeing and education support and an injury hardship fund.

The NRL will also follow in the footsteps of other governing bodies like Cricket Australia and Netball Australia by introducing policies in relation to pregnancy and parental arrangements.

But it's important to note, that the agreement is still in principle, which means it is not finalised.

The NRL made the decision to bring forward the growth of the competition. So instead of moving to an eight team competition this year, another four teams have been introduced. It basically means the competition has more than doubled in the space of two years.

No finalised CBA makes it extremely challenging for clubs to begin signing players, even though I'm sure conversations are happening in the background.

After such an exciting RLWC campaign, you would hope that clubs would be interested in signing players from overseas. But certainty is important and when you are asking players to move overseas for a four month period, they want to know how much they are being paid and when the season will commence. Can we share that information with certainty yet?

Growth of the competition is exciting and it's something special to see a club you have supported your entire life expand to not only have a men's team and a women's team.

But we need to walk before we can run.

This historic CBA will hopefully put our players in a position where they have increased job security and support going forward because this is fundamental if women's rugby league is a priority for the NRL going forward.