In a move that would change the NRL forever, the competition has the pitched the idea of a potential conference system.
League heavyweights reportedly met with clubs in recent weeks to discuss future plans, including expansion and most controversially, splitting the NRL into two conferences.
It would involve a Sydney and non-Sydney conference and eventually see two teams added – a second Brisbane side and 18th club – potentially in Perth or New Zealand.
The speculation has been met with a range of opinions from the wider NRL community, including fans, pundits and former players.
The majority of responses have been negative, with the most prolific objection being the fact that it would eliminate the possibility of all-Sydney grand finals.
“Not a fan of the 2 conference system in NRL for many reasons but don’t like it as 2 Sydney teams cannot play in Grand Final as well as weakening 1 conference by putting the 2 new teams into 1 conference,” Wacko’s Whispers tweeted.
Not a fan of the 2 conference system in NRL for many reasons but don't like it as 2 Sydney teams cannot play in Grand Final as well as weakening 1 conference by putting the 2 new teams into 1 conference 🤔🤦♂️
— Wacko's Whispers (@WackosWhispers) April 27, 2021
“The NRL conference system is the best sporting idea since soccer’s European Super League,” ABC’s Quentin Hull tweeted.
Of course, the proposed European Super League was met with such backlash from soccer fans that the idea was pulled within 24 hours.
— QUENTIN HULL (@QuentinHull) April 27, 2021
Fox League’s Warren Smith highlighted that while innovation is good, he believes adopting conferences for the sake of it is not the way to go.
He explained why the NFL has conferences – detailing how the league was originally split as two separate organisations.
I’m all for innovation and moving forward if the reasoning is solid, but it would appear there’s a lot of people looking at the conference systems in US sport who think that model could work well for the NRL, without understanding why they have conferences to begin with.#NRL
— Warren Smith (@WarrenSmithFOX) April 28, 2021
The Age’s Roy Ward is not totally opposed to the idea of conferences, but believes the model “needs more work” to get the desired outcome.
“This conference idea needs more work. Will the #NRL ban Sydney conference clubs from selling home games since they want all these all-Sydney games? How will it be fair to boost the number of longer road trips for Mel/Qld/NZ/Canberra sides? It won’t get the outcomes NRL wants,” Ward tweeted.
This conference idea needs more work. Will the #NRL ban Sydney conference clubs from selling home games since they want all these all-Sydney games? How will it be fair to boost the number of longer road trips for Mel/Qld/NZ/Canberra sides? It won't get the outcomes NRL wants. https://t.co/5c3rEU8ZZ3
— Roy Ward (@rpjward) April 27, 2021
7News’ Chris Garry believes the model is “untenable” from a travel perspective.
“The more I think about the NRL conference system the more the unbalanced travel schedule makes it untenable – the NRL would have to give the expansion conference bye weeks or cap dispensation to make up for it. There are many benefits to conferences but geographically it’s hard,” he tweeted.
The more I think about the NRL conference system the more the unbalanced travel schedule makes it untenable – the NRL would have to give the expansion conference bye weeks or cap dispensation to make up for it. There are many benefits to conferences but geographically it’s hard.
— Chris Garry (@ChrisGarry7) April 27, 2021
On the other side, rugby league legend and NSW coach Brad Fittler is a fan of the idea, with his only concern being the inability for Sydney clubs to meet in the grand final.
“It wouldn’t be fair to think that you’d go into a season and at the end of the year Parramatta doesn’t have the ability to play Canterbury or a couple of those old rivalries that we’ve seen for years, Roosters and South Sydney.
“To start a season and know that they wouldn’t play in a grand final would do detriment to the game.”
Rugby league guru and commentator Phil Gould believes conferences are the way of the future and it can work in the NRL.
However, he stated it would need to be phased in and would take another five years to establish an 18th club.
“We can certainly get one. It will take some hard work, they would have to commit now and there’d have to be negotiations around future salary caps. They haven’t even signed a free-to-air broadcast-rights partner yet, so they’re not sure how much money they’re going to have.
“You’ve got to invest in participation. It starts with participation at junior levels and then it goes çrepresentative programs and elite programs and providing a level of football to everyone to keep them in the game for as long as they can. Eventually, then, we have enough NRL players that we’ve always got a depth of talent and that clubs can build a culture and a chemistry of their own … That’s a lot of hard work. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s only a bit of elbow grease. It’s only time and effort and you’ve just got to put it in.
“If they’re wanting another team in New Zealand it’s going to take another five years to get that right. If it’s not New Zealand it’s somewhere else. There might be somewhere else they’re thinking about. But wherever that 18th team is, it has to be in place by 2026.”
NRL super coach Wayne Bennett also threw his support behind the idea, highlighting the exciting rivalries that would play out and commercial opportunities that would follow.
“It’s a great sale point,” Bennett told The Sydney Morning Herald.
“America does it in the Super Bowl. The biggest drawing final games we’ve had are when there are two Sydney teams. I went through it with the Dragons when we played the Tigers in the prelim. There was over 60 or 70,000 people there.
“The reality is the biggest crowds at finals times is when local teams play each other. They don’t get crowds when you get Brisbane or Melbourne against a Sydney team.
“The stupidity of it all is it’s always been about maximising the impact to the game. What they should want is rivalry and having the Tigers playing Parra home and away every year. A conference system guarantees it.”
Check out more NRL fan reactions below and let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Tribalism is the same as fatigue to rugby league. It's not gonna improve the product when it comes at the expense of everything else. An all-Sydney conference won't work. #NRL
— Slatts (@trentslatts) April 27, 2021
A Conference system? I think I preferred NRL Island
— Joey Nicita ☀️ (@JoeyNicita) April 27, 2021
PVL may as well just punt the Titans and Warriors and bring back Newtown and the Bears. Stuff it, why not go big and get rid of the Cowboys and bring back Western Suburbs. Brisbane and Melbourne can play 12 times to decide the winner of the non-Sydney conference #NRL
— Phil Lutton (@phillutton78) April 27, 2021
Very keen for the #NRl conference system so the game can really tap into those blockbuster rivalries like Titans-Knights and Raiders-Cowboys. The sky really is the limit.
— Phil Lutton (@phillutton78) April 27, 2021
The US system ending in a Super Bowl is kinda dumb tho. Just go through the list of recent GFs that wouldn’t have happened
— Lolo (@66mc66) April 28, 2021
NRL conferences are a great idea if you’re a Parra fan and are scared of playing more than 20kms away from bankwest
— Harry Scorse (@TheScorsizzler) April 27, 2021
— Aaron 🐶 (@Woody_Dogs) April 28, 2021