The NRL is set to become the first governing sports body in Australia to test for prescription drugs and may also appoint independent doctors at matches to assess players for concussion.
The proposals were among the main topics at a two-day meeting of NRL officials and club bosses in Auckland before this weekend's Nines tournament, and Broncos chief executive Paul White said the game wanted to be a "world leader" in player welfare issues.
A final decision on whether they are implemented will be made before the start of the season but the league is already preparing to take over testing of illicit substances from clubs.
NRL chief operating officer Jim Doyle said the focus on the testing would be to determine how widespread the misuse of prescription drugs was, and the NRL planned to educate players on the dangers of mixing sleeping pills and energy drinks before considering suspensions.
He said the NRL may eventually follow the lead of the Australian Olympic Committee and ban players from taking sleeping tablets but the first step would be to introduce testing and talks have already begun with the Rugby League Players' Association.
"It is something that we as a game have talked about internally for some time and we are working a lot with the players' association in regards to how do we progress this year and beyond with respect to that. We haven't landed on that 100 per cent yet but before the start of the season we will have completed what the NRL's 2014 illicit drugs [list] will consist of," Doyle said.
Doyle said he was awaiting a report from the New Zealand Rugby League into allegations some players in the Kiwis' World Cup squad combined prescription drugs and energy drinks while on an alcohol ban during last year's seven-week tournament in Britain.
However, he confirmed the NRL was not in a position to take any action against players as they had not taken a banned substance. "If you found out someone is taking something that is not banned then you can't suspend them for it but it is about the duty of care to the players," he said. "Do they really understand what they are doing to themselves and their bodies? Our focus will be to look at how big is the issue, what education and welfare can be put in place."
While the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority tests players for performance-enhancing drugs, clubs are responsible for testing for illicit substances, such as cocaine and marijuana, and report their findings to the NRL.
However, Doyle said the NRL planned to take that role over from the clubs and would include prescription drugs in the list of substances players were tested for. "It is not ASADA, we do our own testing and that will be part of it," he said.
White said clubs supported allowing the NRL to test for prescription drugs as well as illicit substances. "The thing about this is that it is positive and the game is on the front foot," White said. "I know there are assertions about what might have happened with the New Zealand team but from where I sit as CEO I don't see it as being rampant. But I think this an opportunity as a game to work proactively with the game and the players themselves to identify a way that improves welfare."
White also tabled a proposal at the meeting allowing players who lose a player with concussion in a match to be given a free interchange when he is replaced and returns. Doyle said the NRL was also considering providing an independent doctor at matches to decide whether a player needs to come from the field to be assessed. "We are looking at that, it would be an appointed person," Doyle said.