Off the Wall

Readers of this column won't be at all surprised at the confirmation yesterday that the Australian Rugby Union won't be offering half-million plus deals to rugby league players.


The ARU CEO, John O'Neill, claimed yesterday the decision not to offer lucrative contracts to league players was a result of rugby's decision to "back its own rising young talent" really does stretch credibility.


There is one reason above any other for the ARU's decision. The ARU, and rugby generally, is struggling with television ratings, attendances and sponsorship agreements - and that means it is short of cash.


It simply does not have the money to offer the $600,000 a year deals that enticed the likes of Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri, Matt Rogers etc to switch codes. End of story!


The real losers out of rugby's predicament are the managers of NRL players.


For years player managers have been using the ARU's interest in paying top dollar to talk up what their charges are worth.


The result has been that in a number of instances NRL clubs have had to stretch their budgets, and the salary cap limits, to keep players.


With the ARU effectively out of the bidding race, player managers are going to have to rely on the UK Super League, and French and Japanese rugby as bargaining tools.


The withdrawal of the ARU from the high bidding field could not come at a better time for the 16 NRL clubs.


We are enjoying good television ratings, and crowds are generally up, but the reality is that the majority of the NRL clubs remain under real financial pressure, if not in financial difficulty.


The full impact of cutbacks in payments from leagues clubs to their football clubs is starting to be felt. Even if they have room under the salary cap, many clubs have to think twice about signing up players to lucrative long term contracts.


The current season, and the next two seasons, are going to be a financial struggle for most clubs.


The NRL, and the clubs, are hoping the next television rights agreement will provide financial relief. But that is not going to start until the 2013 season, so any increase in payments to clubs, and an expansion of the salary cap, won't be possible until the end of the 2012 season at the earliest.


While player managers are going to continue to talk up the worth of their clients their case is unquestionably weakened by the parlous state of rugby's finances.


But none of this seems to be having an impact, at least publicly, on Johnathan Thurston's manager!


The Thurston "will he sign or won't he sign" saga shows no sign of ending. And sections of the media are lapping it up.


Today we read that the Bulldogs, Thurston's former team, are now in the "mix" as well. So they join the Knights, Warriors, Eels who have been linked, tenuously or otherwise, with Thurston in recent weeks. And apparently French rugby is still in there somewhere as well! And the Cowboys of course!


Just imagine what an even more drawn out saga it would have been if the ARU was still cashed up?