SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 15: Dragons players take to the field during the round 18 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Wests Tigers at UOW Jubilee Oval on July 15, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

I write this with a heavy heart. But also with much hope.

I still remember the heartache caused by the Super League split in the mid-1990s. I briefly lost my beloved Manly Sea Eagles. Fans of Balmain, Western Suburbs, South Sydney, St George Dragons, Illawarra Steelers, North Sydney Bears, Gold Coast Chargers, and South Queensland Crushers will have similar memories.

But, as the coronavirus takes over the world, it seems the NRL is on the precipice.

The world of sport is going to change once this is all over. But can tradition and expansion co-exist?

Welcome to the NRL 2040 season

The coronavirus decimated the NRL in 2020. The league itself was nearly forced to fold due to financial reasons, but private sponsorship and government investment in facility infrastructure brought it back from the brink.

Unfortunately, it was not enough to save the Gold Coast Titans, who became just the latest franchise from the city to dissolve. Manly, Cronulla and Canterbury survived, but only enough to participate in the new NSW Competition, known as the Arthurson-Quayle Cup.

The play alongside Newtown, North Sydney, Central Coast, and six feeder teams: Illawarra, Wentworthville, Wests Magpies, Penrith, Balmain, and Hunter. The match of the day each week is shown live on the ABC, as is the equivalent in the QLD Cup.

All matches are also shown live on the NRL.com website for subscribers, who pay $15 per month to access both NSW and QLD competitions, as well as replays of the NRL (they still have their billion dollar deals), test matches, the Northern Super League, the second tier English competition; as well as a plethora of archives, including the old ARL and State of Origin, Challenge Cup finals, and tests.

When teams were no longer to financially compete in the national competition, the NRL, under the leadership of Phil Gould, decided to expand to a truly national competition, as they sought a television rights deal that would sustain them indefinitely. Gould, having learnt the lessons of the 2020 implosion, set aside funds for any future emergencies.

Gould was behind the merger of his beloved Penrith Panthers with the old Wests Tigers club. The Western Sydney Panthers now draw more crowds than their chief rival, the AFL’S Greater Western Sydney Giants. They also have three feeder teams and four licensed clubs in Sydney providing a stream of income. South Sydney, Sydney Roosters, Parramatta, and St George-Illawarra managed to survive; and sponsorship dollars in Sydney are now more easily accessible.

Melbourne coach Cameron Smith has managed to keep the Storm close to the top of the ladder since taking over from Craig Bellamy. Brisbane, Canberra, Newcastle, North Queensland, and the New Zealand Warriors also came through the 2020 crisis, although the Warriors needed propping up from the NZ government for several years.

The NRL went back to Perth and Adelaide to bolster their credentials of being a truly national competition. The Perth Reds were an instant success, while the Adelaide Brewers took some time to develop their junior base; just as Melbourne had done twenty-five years earlier. The Toowoomba-Ipswich Clydesdales parlayed their rich history into premiership success early in their tenure, under the coaching of Kevin Walters. The Northern Territory Crocs still struggle, but they have the advantage of getting the best players from Papua New Guinea.

The surprise packet of the competition has been the Western Farmers. The best players in NSW Country rugby league were immediately snapped up by their inaugural coach, Laurie Daley. The Farmers play three home games each year at Mudgee, Dubbo, Tamworth, and Bathurst, and pack out their stadiums each and every week.

The home grounds all underwent a major upgrade thanks to NSW government stimulus package after the 2020 crisis, as part of keeping country people in employment. This was an acknowledgement from both the NRL and the government that regional people kept rugby league alive during the coronavirus crisis.

So, here we are. Round one of the 2040 season. Sydney fans get behind Parramatta, Souths, the Roosters, St George-Illawarra, or the Western Sydney Panthers; while traditionalists get behind their team in the prestigious Arthurson-Quayle Cup. Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle, North QLD, Warriors, Perth, Adelaide, Toowoomba-Ipswich, and Northern Territory fans all have hope for the season ahead.

The Western Farmers continue to spread the word of rugby league throughout New South Wales schools, while running employment programmes to keep country youth in country towns. They are the sentimental favourites and everyone’s second team.

Twenty years on, rugby league looks a hell of a lot different. But it has not only survived but thrived.

Same as it ever was.

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