With NRL expansion seemingly back on the agenda, every man and his dog has an opinion on which, and how many teams should get the all clear to join Australasia’s top tier of rugby league.
What is the right number? 1? 2? 4? Where should the new team/s be located? Perth? Adelaide? PNG? Pacific Islands? NZ? NSW Central Coast? QLD?
I would argue that two teams are probably the right amount to start with. I think you want to have a competition with an even amount of teams so as to avoid weekly byes like we had in the years following Souths’ readmission into the NRL, and preceding the admission of the Gold Coast Titans.
The question of “where” is a far more difficult one. The question of “where not” is slightly easier to answer. I’ll start with Adelaide. Rugby of either kind does not exist out there. The Adelaide Rams were an abysmal failure on and off the field. I’m not saying “never”. But putting a team in Adelaide will require a 20-30 year plan – something I believe the ARLC does not have the foresight to put together.
What about PNG and the Pacific Islands? It’d be nice. PNG love their league, and the game is growing in nations like Samoa, Tonga and especially Fiji. But let’s be fair dinkum here. These are essentially third world countries.
There are immense logistical issues related to these countries fielding NRL teams, including travel, attracting marquee players, and the possession of infrastructure that makes Brookvale Oval look world class.
Get these nations into our lower tiers by all means (PNG already have a QLD Cup team and Fiji look set to join the NSW Cup next year – Tonga and Samoa need to follow suit).
Giving their local players pathways to the NRL to will improve our player depth, making expansion easier, and will improve their national teams, which is good for the game as a whole. But as far as NRL representation goes, it’s an emphatic NO from me.
That leaves us with New Zealand, NSW Central Coast, Perth, and QLD (could be Brisbane, Ipswich/Logan/South East or Central QLD). These are all viable options, and I would be happy to see any of these teams enter the NRL.
I won’t delve into which teams I would prefer because to me, it is much more about the “how” than the “where”.
What I mean is that I don’t want to see teams just brought in straight off the bat like the Melbourne Storm were.
Yes, the Melbourne Storm is a great rugby league success story. But I believe that they are the exception rather than the rule in that their success has come through a series of lucky coincidences rather than through good planning by the governing body.
I’m not saying that they haven’t been successful. If three (or five depending on who you ask) premierships in 20 years aren’t a success then I don’t know what is.
I’m certainly not saying that they don’t deserve their success. There are many people at the Melbourne Storm who have worked bloody hard for everything that they have achieved.
But there was no plan for Melbourne when they were brought in in 1998, other than “let’s give them a bunch of stars like Glenn Lazarus, Robbie Kearns and Brett Kimmorley and hope for the best”. Admittedly, it worked in that it resulted in their maiden premiership in 1999. But their success beyond that has been down to nothing but chance.
They happened to sign a coach who would turn out to be one of the greatest of all time (he’s now in his 16th season in charge of the Storm). He happened to bring the three cornerstones of their success in the last decade to the club as unknown 17-year-olds. And the club happened to have financial backing from News Ltd, without which they wouldn’t have survived the 2010 Salary Cap Scandal.
All this resulted in tremendous success at the elite level. But let’s not forget that in two decades, Melbourne has produced two juniors – Mahe Fonua and Young Tonumaipea.
In other words, their success is top-down, not bottom-up. And the chances of this success being replicated in Perth, or New Zealand, with the same approach, are very slim in my opinion.
What I’m saying is that for me, if any of these teams want to play in the NRL, they need to have teams in the lower tiers first. And I don’t just mean the NSW and QLD Cups. I’m talking Harold Matthews, SG Ball, Jersey Flegg, and/or their QLD equivalents.
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to any QLD sides looking to join the NRL, or to the NSW Central Coast. These are rugby league heartland areas – they already have quality junior development systems in place.
But it is far less costly for the NRL to invest heavily in WA or NZ grass-roots than it is for them to artificially prop up the West Coast Pirates or the Wellington Whatevers in the NRL for years like the AFL is doing with GWS and the Gold Coast.
Get them playing in the U16s, U18s, U20s and reserve grade competitions in QLD and/or NSW with locally grown players. Allow them to create feeder relationships with existing NRL clubs so that their best juniors still have a path to the NRL.
If the NRL wants to expand to anywhere beyond QLD or NSW in the next decade, the above needs to happen right NOW. Otherwise, we’ll likely have a bunch of money-hole clubs that will not achieve anything unless they happen across champions like the Storm did.