Cronulla salary cap investigation | Chris Heighington payment under the microscope.

A promised payment to Newcastle’s former Cronulla forward Chris Heighington was behind the Sharks’ decision to self-report a potential salary cap breach to the NRL.

OLD MATES' ACT: Former teammates Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen chair Chris Heighington off the field at Shark Park last weekend. Picture: AAP

OLD MATES' ACT: Former teammates Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen chair Chris Heighington off the field at Shark Park last weekend. Picture: AAP

Fairfax Media can reveal that a proposed deal to Heighington, believed to be worth $50,000 from 2015, was the catalyst for the Sharks to open up their books to the governing body, resulting in the latest investigation.

There is no suggestion that Heighington knew of the proposed payment or in any way acted improperly. There are even suggestions the third-party arrangement, which may not have been properly disclosed to head office, didn’t actually eventuate. Regardless, the Sharks could find themselves in strife for not declaring it at the time, as evidenced by the litany of unfulfilled TPA promises at Parramatta that resulted in hefty sanctions.

Heighington’s long-time manager, Wayne Beavis, said every TPA he ever did for his client during his Shire stint was disclosed to head office.

“With Chris Heighington, any third parties he had with Cronulla were registered with the NRL … and I have all the paperwork,” Beavis said.

Heighington joined the Sharks in 2013 after a Wests Tigers stint that included a key role in their breakthrough premiership win of 2005. He then made 116 appearances for the Sharks over five seasons, including the grand final win in 2015. He shifted to Newcastle at the start of this season.

The veteran forward is preparing to play his last game of an illustrious career, against the Dragons on Saturday, before retiring.

Heighington was chaired off Southern Cross Group Stadium by his former Sharks teammates after Cronulla all but sealed a top four spot with a convincing victory over the Knights last Sunday.

The veteran back-rower and English international agreed to help Nathan Brown’s re-build at Newcastle in 2018, which will be his final season before he retires.

Two-time premiership winner Heighington, 36, sits seventh on the list of most appearances in Australian top grade rugby league games having begun his career in 2003.

Meanwhile, the NRL will consider publishing the total number and worth of third-party arrangements each club attracts in a bid to flush out undisclosed player payments. The Cronulla salary cap investigation has again cast the spotlight on TPAs, the common denominator in almost all of the game’s salary cap scandals.

There won’t be any major changes after the NRL and the player’s union agreed to keep TPAs intact in the last round of collective bargaining talks, although a committee has been reviewing the system.

The committee comprises stakeholders including several club CEOs, including former Sharks boss Lyall Gorman. NRL CEO Todd Greenberg indicated Gorman, now at Manly, is one of the people the integrity unit will seek to interview alongside Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan and former chairman Damien Keogh.

One of the committee’s recommendations is to provide more transparency around TPAs.

It is proposed  the NRL would divulge how many TPAs each club attracts and their total value. While individual player payments would remain confidential, the change will give fans and other stakeholders a chance to see the discrepancy between the 16 franchises.

If accepted, the initiative will also provide an indication of the corporate pulling power of the game’s biggest names and how they are spread across the league.

The committee has also pushed for greater education to ensure players, managers and officials better understand the TPA rules and are made aware of the consequences of not following them. 

While the number and value of TPAs is falling across the game, the NRL and the Rugby League Players Association want the system to remain.

‘‘TPAs per se are not the problem,” said Gold Coast chief and incoming NRL head of football Graham Annesley, a member of the TPA review committee.

“If they are declared upfront, approved by the NRL, and bring new money into the game to better reward our players and keep them in the game, that’s a good thing. The problem arises with undeclared, unapproved TPAs that are used as a recruitment or retention tool outside salary cap guidelines.

“The working group has been looking at a range of initiatives around greater transparency and education in an attempt to limit the opportunity for future misuse of the system’’.

This season, 198 players will earn $9.6 million in TPAs. League powerbrokers claim the number of top-up payments, as well as the discrepancy between the “rich” and “poor” clubs, is overstated.

“In terms of the working group put together to look at the current TPA system, that highlighted to us that it’s a drop in the ocean when you look a the money going to players within the game,” RLPA CEO Ian Prendergast said. “It’s important that everyone has transparency over what the TPA market looks like, given more than 80 per cent of these arrangements are linked to representative players who absolutely deserve those types of arrangements outside the salary cap.’’