Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) is set to expand the NRLW, the country’s top women’s competition, again after reaching an in-principal agreement on a new pay deal for players and on the league structure for the next five years.

The league and the Rugby League Players’ Association confirmed today (February 14) they had reached an agreement on financial terms for a women’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) ahead of this year’s expanded 10-team NRLW competition beginning on July 21.

Under terms of the agreement, the 2023 and 2024 NRLW seasons will include a nine-round regular season before two weeks of finals, with players given two weeks of annual leave as part of their contract, along with seven weeks of pre-season training.

In total, the schedule will make for a 20-week commitment per season and the women’s league will continue to be played alongside the end of the men’s NFL season, with a double-header grand final.

The State of Origin competition will stay at two matches for at least the next two seasons before potentially growing to three.

The NRL has also pledged to invest AUD118 million ($82 million) into the women’s game over the next five years, while teams will be granted a salary cap of AUD900,000 for this season at an average of AUD37,500 per player.

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The cap will then rise to more than AUD1.5 million in 2027 at an average salary of AUD62,500.

The minimum salary for an NRLW player has been set at AUD30,000 in 2023, increasing to AUD34,000 in 2024, and AUD50,600 by 2027.

The next expansion of the league is likely to come in 2025, with the possibility of two extra teams taking the competition to 12 sides, with funding already set aside for it.

The agreement means players will be able to enter multi-year contracts as part of the competition’s new structure, while four development players at each club will be paid for the first time.

A pregnancy policy will also be enacted, allowing players to step away from the game for 12 months while keeping their contracts. Clubs will be able to access a replacement player during the maternity leave and support will be given to primary carers for 24 months.

NRL chief Andrew Abdo said: “The ARLC was adamant [that] investment in the women's game was prioritized at every level, and the finalization of terms for the elite NRLW is just one aspect of that commitment.

"The proposed investment of $118 million across the five-year cycle at the elite level factors in the future growth of the competition and is also supported by significant investment in pathways and grass-roots participation. As part of an overall strategy for women’s rugby league development.

“I want to acknowledge and thank the players, RLPA, clubs, and all partners for their support as we worked through this historic agreement.”

The framework comes after protracted negotiations between the NFL and players’ union that have, at times, turned bitter. Several NRL stars had threatened several measures of protest, including strike action.

RLPA chief executive Clint Newton said: “Agreeing to these financial terms will now give NRLW players financial certainty and security ahead of signing contracts for the 2023 NRLW season and beyond.

“Although this is not a final agreement and several terms are yet to be agreed, this is a big step toward securing their first ever CBA.”

Negotiations remain ongoing between the players’ union and the NRL on the men’s game and an overall CBA, with that deal rolling on from last season.

Image: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images