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Contract killers: Why one in three long-term deals are terminated

NRL clubs are becoming increasingly wary of long-term deals as up to a third of players signed for four years or more fail to complete their contracts due to a combination of new coaches, rule changes, inconsistent form and large pay-outs for medical retirements.

The negotiation of a five-year broadcast deal with Channel 9 and Fox Sports from 2018 to 2022 sparked a flurry of players being signed on lengthy, big-money contracts which were due to expire this year or at the end of next season.

They included four-year deals from 2018 for the likes of Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce (Knights), James Tedesco, Daniel Tupou (Roosters), Tohu Harris (Warriors), Dane Gagai, Adam Reynolds (Rabbitohs), Gareth Widdop (Dragons) and Dale Finucane (Storm).

Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Eels prop Junior Paulo, Storm front-rower Jesse Bromwich and hooker Brandon Smith and Titans forward Jarrod Wallace were among those signed until 2022 on four or five-year deals.

However, Aaron Woods (Bulldogs), Dean Whare, Waqa Blake, Reagan Campbell-Gillard (all Panthers), Sione Mata'utia (Knights), Andrew McCullough, Jack Bird, Darius Boyd, James Roberts, Josh McGuire (all Broncos) and Josh Reynolds (Tigers) are just some of the players released early from long-term deals.

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Others, such as Josh Dugan (Sharks), Anthony Milford (Broncos), Ash Taylor (Titans), Matt Moylan (Sharks) and Russell Packer (Tigers) have been told by their clubs they won't be offered a new deal or will have to accept a pay cut next season.

In addition, the medical retirements of star players on long-term deals, such as Sam Burgess (Rabbitohs), Matt Gillett (Broncos), Michael Morgan (Cowboys), Boyd Cordner (Roosters) and Tim Glasby (Knights), has cost clubs an estimated $10 million in contract pay-outs.

The forced retirements of Burgess, who had played just 19 matches after signing a new five-year contract, with a shoulder injury and former Queensland Origin forward Ethan Lowe (neck) were among the reasons Souths offered Reynolds just a one-year deal.

Reynolds, who will now play out his career with Brisbane, is due to complete a four-year deal at the end of the season but at 30 years of age the Rabbitohs were reluctant to offer their captain and star playmaker another long-term contract.

Some NRL clubs now organise insurance cover for their highest-earning players but there is a growing view that it is better to avoid lengthy deals unless the players are young.

Among those who have recently signed long-term contracts are Brisbane back Kotoni Staggs (until 2025), Titans fullback AJ Brimson (2026), Canterbury-bound Melbourne winger Josh Addo-Carr (2025) and injured Dragons captain Cameron McInnes, who will join Cronulla next season on a four-year deal.

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Manly's Trbojevic brothers, Jake and Tom, are signed until 2026, while Cowboys fullback Valentine Holmes (2025), Dragons centre Zac Lomax (2025), Rabbitohs lock Cameron Murray (2025), Broncos prop Payne Haas (2024) and Warriors forward Elisea Katoa (2025) are others with long-term deals.

Of those players, only McInnes and Jake Trbojevic (both 27) will turn 30 before their deals are due to end.

North Queensland superstar Jason Taumalolo penned the longest contract in NRL history when he signed for 10 years until 2027, while Sea Eagles captain Daly Cherry-Evans is set to complete an eight-year deal next season.

However, about 30 per cent of players on deals for four years or more do not complete them because of a change of coach, their inability to maintain the form they showed when signed or injuries.

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Medical retirements

If a club signs a player whose injury history is linked to the reason for him retiring early, the value of the player's contract usually remains on their salary cap until it expires.

However, even if the contract is excluded from the salary cap, clubs are required to pay out the full term of the deal for any player forced into medical retirement – leaving the Rabbitohs more than $3 million out of pocket when Burgess was unable to continue playing.

Brisbane (Gillett), North Queensland (Morgan) and Newcastle (Glasby) are other clubs that have been faced with large pay-outs and one NRL CEO estimates the unforeseen medical retirements have cost all 16 clubs about $10 million collectively.

The Rabbitohs did not have to pay out the contract of Greg Inglis in 2019 as he was not medically retired and has made a comeback this season with Warrington in the Super League.

Change of coach

The Panthers had signed former New Zealand centre Dean Whare until 2022, while Waqa Blake was contracted until 2023 and Reagan Campbell-Gillard had a massive deal until 2024 before Ivan Cleary took over as coach in 2019.

Blake and Campbell-Gillard joined Parramatta on similar deals, while Whare was released earlier this season to replace Israel Folau at Catalans.

Aaron Woods was another player signed on a long-term deal before a change of coach, with the former Kangaroos prop signing with Canterbury when Des Hasler was in a charge but managing just 14 games under Dean Pay before moving to Cronulla in 2018.

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He is now searching for a new club next season, along with teammates Josh Dugan and Shaun Johnson, after Craig Fitzgibbon was given charge of the Sharks, while Moses Mbye has been given permission to look elsewhere before his Wests Tigers deal expires in 2022.

Josh McGuire, Andrew McCullough and Darius Boyd were among the big-name players who didn't see out their Broncos contracts after Anthony Seibold took charge in 2019, while his successor Kevin Walters released Jack Bird to the Dragons, along with McCullough, who returned for two matches earlier this season.

Darius Boyd celebrates a try in his final NRL game in 2020.
Darius Boyd celebrates a try in his final NRL game in 2020. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

Rule changes and form

Tonga international and former NSW Origin prop Andrew Fifita has managed just two NRL appearances from the bench for Cronulla this season due to concerns about his ability to adapt to the increased speed of the game.

Fifita, who signed a contract extension in 2017 until the end of next season, shed weight last summer in a bid to ensure he wasn't affected by the rule changes introduced in the past 18 months but he was unable to convince sacked Cronulla coach John Morris.

Russell Packer is another former representative front-rower who has been struggling to earn NRL selection this season, with the Tigers prop playing in round one and not getting a look in since. He is unlikely to be offered another NRL contract when his current four-year deal ends this season.

Long-term deals (since 2017)

Brisbane Broncos
Jack Bird (2021)
Darius Boyd (2021)
Matt Gillett (2022)
Payne Haas (2024)
Anthony Milford (2021)
Andrew McCullough (2021)
Josh McGuire (2021)
James Roberts (2021)
Kotoni Staggs (2025)

Canberra Raiders
Curtis Scott (2023)

Canterbury Bulldogs
Josh Addo-Carr (2025)
Aaron Woods (2021)

Cronulla Sharks
Josh Dugan (2021)
Andrew Fifita (2022)
Cameron McInnes (2025)
Matt Moylan (2021)

Gold Coast Titans
AJ Brimson (2026)
Ash Taylor (2021)
Jarrod Wallace (2022)

Manly Sea Eagles
Jake Trbojevic (2026)
Tom Trbojevic (2026)

Melbourne Storm
Nelson Asofa-Solomona (2023)
Jesse Bromwich (2022)
Dale Finucane (2021)
Cameron Munster (2023)
Brandon Smith (2022)

David Klemmer (2023)
Sione Mata'utia (2021)
Mitchell Pearce (2021)
Kalyn Ponga (2021)

North Queensland Cowboys
Valentine Holmes (2025)
Michael Morgan (2022)
Jason Taumalolo (2027)

Parramatta Eels
Waqa Blake (2023)
Reagan Campbell-Gillard (2024)
Junior Paulo (2022)

Penrith Panthers
Waqa Blake (2022)
Reagan Campbell-Gillard (2024)
Nathan Cleary (2024)
Dean Whare (2022)

St George Illawarra Dragons
Ben Hunt (2023)
Zac Lomax (2025)
Gareth Widdop (2021)

South Sydney Rabbitohs
Sam Burgess (2023)
Dane Gagai (2021)
Cam Murray (2025)
Adam Reynolds (2021)

Sydney Roosters
Boyd Cordner (2023)
Victor Radley (2023)
James Tedesco (2021)
Daniel Tupou (2021)

Wests Tigers
Luke Brooks (2023)
Adam Doueihi (2023)
Moses Mbye (2022)
David Nofoaluma (2021)
Russell Packer (2021)
Josh Reynolds (2021)

Tohu Harris (2021)
Chris Satae (2021)
Elisea Katoa (2025)
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (2022)

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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