Forget the Suaali'i code war, what about gender pay disparity

There is almost no conversation in sport that I find more tedious than the pronounced 'code wars' between rugby league and rugby union.

Following Rugby Australia's announcement that they had successfully recruited Sydney Roosters player Joseph-Aukuso Suaali'i from 2025 onwards, I have been reminded why.

In terms of the signing itself, I wish Suaali'i nothing but the best and thank him for his service to rugby league. Sporting careers can be short and in a world where club loyalty towards players, and vice versa means very little, I encourage athletes to do what they can to financially secure their futures.

Unfortunately, there has been a lack of grace from some areas of both the rugby union and rugby league communities, none more so than Phil Gould. I think we can be better than this and should all look to the example that Trent Robinson set in his comments about the signing earlier this week.

But rather than fan the flames of a 'code war' that I don't care about, I'm more interested in Rugby Australia's thought process and why they have decided to spend an estimated $1.6 million per year on Suaali'i when the maximum that an Australian Wallaroos player will earn is $52k.

That's quite a pay gap.

I do want to recognise the work that Rugby Australia has done in this space, particularly recently. Under the most recent CBA, executed earlier this year, there has been a $2 million investment into the women's game with up to 35 Wallaroos players earning up to $52k for competing for the Wallaroos and in the Super W.

This was a big step, but it looks like Rugby Australia has plenty more money to spend, especially when you consider the potential of private equity investment.

To me, there is just so much untapped and unrealised potential in the women's game with women like Grace Hamilton, Emily Chancellor, Liz Patu and Sharni Williams not just being exceptional players, but with remarkable stories off the field too.

What would it take to unleash the potential?

Look no further than the Australian Women's Cricket team, who are, in my view the true success story of women's sport in this country.

I think it could be argued that this is the best Australian cricket team ever.

Last month, with a win over South Africa, the Australian Women's Cricket team claimed a hat-trick of T20 World Cups with victories in 2018, 2020 and 2023. During that time the team also won the 2022 ODI World Cup and Commonwealth Games gold.

But this success has not happened overnight.

Back in 2013, just before the launch of the WBBL in 2015, Cricket Australia announced a pay rise for the Australian women. Contracts ranged from $25k to $52k and tour payments and marketing bonuses were provided in addition to the base contract. This feels like where Rugby Australia is now.

In 2017, the most recent MOU was agreed with the men and women both included in the revenue sharing model which resulted in the men and women sharing the same base-contract remuneration and female player payments increasing from $7.5 million to $55.2 million. This change not only impacted the national team, but also resulted in domestic players being considered semi-professional for players competing in the WBBL and the WNCL.

Since then, there have been several players in this team that in my view have become household names including Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning, Beth Mooney, Megan Schutt, Alyssa Healy and Ashleigh Gardner.

Isn't this something Rugby Australia can aspire to? Rather than paying one player over $1.5 million per year, wouldn't it be more effective to raise the pay for your female athletes and unleash several new heroes into the market and then potentially really open up a new market.

So often when this conversation takes place, a common retort is that until women's sport can generate the same revenue as the men, that there is no point in having this conversation about pay.

That's interesting to me.

My view is that the role of a player is to perform on the field to the best of their ability and to be a positive ambassador. Is it not the role of the governing body to secure sponsorship and to market the sport appropriately? If the women's game is not bringing in enough revenue, is that really on the players? Or should we be looking at head office?

Some may also point to a comparison between the Super W players and the NRLW players; neither cohort are full time professional athletes.

But we aren't really comparing apples with apples here. Rugby Australia contracts its Australian players across all formats of the game and these contracts are where the real money lies. In rugby league, the amount a player is paid under the cap is where the real money lies.

To make this type of comparison, you would need to question where the NRL is choosing to invest its money, given that the NRL itself is not splashing out on a marquee player.

This also does not change my view that both the NRL and Rugby Australia need to invest more in their women's programs.

Will the Suaali'i investment help Rugby Australia make inroads? Perhaps. But I know I would rather hedge my bets on lifting the tide for more players in the hope that these players can all contribute to a new face of rugby union, which will no doubt have even bigger impact for the next generation of boys and girls.