The Super League Hypothetical
Former chief executive of the Australian Rugby League Commission David Gallop. AAP Image/Dean Lewins
When David Gallop fronted the media at NRL HQ to announce his resignation, I realised that the last remnant of Super League was now gone from the top.
As the chief News Limited lawyer during the War, Gallop’s tenure was often marred by accusations of his favouritism to News Limited.
Favouring News Limited was regarded as detrimental to the game, because they have never and never will care about rugby league. They waltzed in with their ‘vision’ and destroyed the game for their own selfish purposes.
They destroyed the game at a time when it was doing so well.
Who didn’t love the era of the Winfield Cup?
The 1989 grand final, the advent of the three-game SOO series, Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’, the introduction of nine new clubs, record crowds, wonderful football, and legends like Mal Meninga, Brett Kenny, Steve Mortimer and Wally Lewis.
What an era, what a time!
Recently, I haven’t been so sure.
If the game was going so well, how was News Limited able to entice eight clubs to their new competition, and many more close to signing?
If the game was going so well, why did some of the best players in the game sign with the new competition when there was no guarantee it would take off, when they would lose their privilege of playing for their country and their state?
As many celebrate News Limited’s exit from the game and herald a new era of independence, a couple of questions should be asked.
Was the Winfield Cup really the greatest era in rugby league’s history or has nostalgia set in because of the period that followed? And where would rugby league be now if it weren’t for the War?
The growth of rugby league under the leadership of Ken Arthurson and John Quayle from 1983 until 1995 is self-evident.
In 1983 when the two men took over, the average crowd in the 14-team competition was 7715. It was a very low and costly average.
Clubs were insolvent and the game’s reputation poor.
The game had to be cleaned up and it was. Players got heavily sanctioned for on-field flare ups.
State of Origin became an important rugby league fixture.
Tina Turner was introduced as the face of the game, with the purpose of attracting more women and children. It was a marketing ploy that worked wonders as more women than men began attending matches.
The 10-metre rule was introduced, as well as the interchange, which was designed to make the game faster and more open to scoring.
By 1995, the competition included 20 teams, boasting an average crowd of 14,642 people. It was a wonderful increase by the ARL.
When you crunch the numbers though, despite the spike in crowds, mass marketing and confidence in the product, the Sydney ARL clubs were still the ones struggling the most.
Wests, Sydney Tigers, Parramatta, Souths, St. George, Penrith and Sydney-City all averaged less than 10,000 people a game.
With the Sydney clubs struggling and the ARL keen to expand, they commissioned a report in 1992 that encouraged the league to cull the number of Sydney teams from 11 to 5.
Something the ARL were seemingly willing to do.
They kicked out Newtown and Wests in 1983 (Wests took the game to court and won re-inclusion), and in 1995 ARL CEO Ken Arthurson publicly admitted that the Tigers would have difficulty surviving in their present form.
What would the repercussions of such decisions be, especially considering what transpired when South Sydney were expelled from the competition in 1999.
Having said all that, and the ARL keen to go ahead with rationalisation, would the game have been able to maintain such aggressive expansion?
A common belief is that clubs like South Queensland Crushers and Western Reds would have survived had it not been for the Super League War. Perhaps the ARL would have had the patience to persevere with them if it weren’t for the distraction that was Super League, but in the case of the Western Reds they already had tremendous problems before the War.
The Western Reds joined Super League basically because they had to. With the ARL refusing to prop up clubs and the Reds swamped in 10 million dollars of debt, News Limited was perceived as the club’s saviour.
A mixture of poor results, a bad stadium and having to pay the air fares of travelling away teams contributed to the inflation of their debt. If there was no Super League, would the Reds have been able to survive?
And what about the South Queensland Crushers? They averaged a very healthy 21,000 in their first season, but they had to compete with the News Limited owned Brisbane Broncos, resulting in a significant drop off. Had there been no war, would Brisbane still have two teams?
This of course is just hypothetical, but who doesn’t like the hypothetical? Hypothetical debates are the lifeblood of sports fans. We love pondering the implications of events had they gone a different way. Every fan’s suggestions plagued by their inherent biases.
But the questions remain:
Where would rugby league be right now if it wasn’t for the Super League War?
And, was the game really in such great shape prior to it?