Rugby league must improve to stay on top

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Rugby league has had incredible growth this century. This is especially so when you think of setbacks like Super League, Coffs Harbour/Christchurch scandals, salary cap rorts, South Sydney’s expulsion and readmission, the Western Reds/South Queensland Crushers/Adelaide Rams and the lopsided international scores.

In the face of these seemingly insurmountable issues, rugby league has cemented itself as the greatest game of all.

It’s really going places down under.

A new billion-dollar TV rights deal, State of Origin, international improvement, an increase in fans/members, new stadiums, a museum, increased playing numbers and media attention and the establishment of the Independent Commission.

However, pats on the back aside, league is still not living up to its potential.

The sport’s biggest problem is lack of real loyalty. Officials and administrators of the code are too self-centred. Not many in the code have the game’s best interests at heart – they prefer loyalty to their club, local league admin and rep state or nation.

Queensland/NSW coaches want to steal young Kiwis to strengthen their teams but at the expense of the international game.

Coaches and players whinge about referees to take the pressure off themselves, while many league people in media are beset by self-interest.

The code’s growth, image and strength should be the main priorities.

First of all, let’s get serious about international league.

Encourage NRL players to play for New Zealand, Pacific Island countries, USA, England, Wales, France, Papua New Guinea and so on.

The closer these countries get to competing and beating Australia, the bigger global league will grow. Jarryd Hayne should be allowed to play for NSW but must play for Fiji.

However New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and England are different.

Benji Marshall must play only for New Zealand, as too Jack Reed for England, and not Origin. They should be rewarded for not choosing Origin if they are eligible to strengthen another country.

Clubs should be allowed to give bonuses (the same money) for all international reps of any country.

League is so insular in this area, but by only making Australia stronger we weaken the global game, which limits potential commercial growth of the NRL and rugby league as a whole. This is AFL’s Achilles’ Heel and rugby union’s strength, we sit somewhere in the middle.

Remember the code in England has persevered with Welsh and French teams to boost the international game. What have us Aussies done except take the New Zealand TV rights money for the NRL, courtesy of the Warriors, and given little back to the game.

We could show leadership in Papua New Guinea but our efforts are token at best. Some junior development and school competitions are being established by the Broncos, but where is the NRL leadership?

Purely from a match-play perspective, the NRL wrestle effectively kills the other nations’ potential offensive momentum. International league rules should reflect that and penalise the Aussies if they continue to wrestle.

Juniors are how we hold Western Sydney, Gold Coast and make inroads into new areas.

We need a consistent calendar – why should league tournaments overlap and conflict with each other? They should be streamlined to accommodate each other’s needs. If league wants a presence in the schools then it must work with all schools to limit conflict.

For example, the Confraternity Rugby League Carnival (involving 40 private schools across Queensland) conflicts with the National U15 carnival and the U16 Queensland B Team.

So many schools fume they do not get better access to their kids. The problem is depth, because the smaller league schools can’t afford to lose their best kids, as opposed to the giant league academies (like Kirwin, Wavell, Keebra, etc) who, by taking all the best kids from other schools, are killing the smaller schools’ ambitions.

We must maintain the Toyota Cup. There are many in league circles who want to attack the 20s but that exposure and limelight has enticed so many talented borderline kids to choose league over union and AFL.

We need greater networking with all schools. At the moment certain clubs’ rep teams tell their kids not to play school football or train, which leaves the schools forming a bad relationship with these clubs.

As a result, some schools won’t consider playing league or ban their kids from club representation completely.

Both clubs and the league (NSWRL, QRL or ARL) should work with the schools to promote the game in that area. A bit of effort to talk and have cordial relations will help build a friendly relationship. The AFL do this so well compared to local leagues and clubs.

This can help build relationships and help league get some into private schools, where it has little presence. If these schools let AFL in, they can let league in but unhappy relationships currently hinder this.

There needs to be zero tolerance of violence. It is absolutely unacceptable and crowd/parent misbehaviour drives so many parents to soccer, AFL or rugby. The recent incidents in Brisbane and Ipswich are testimony to that.

League development officers should carry club colours where possible and promote a club as well as the game, especially in one team cities or regional areas.

For example, all Western Australian development officers should wear the Pirates insignia, because it will promote the club at all levels. All North Queensland development officers should have Cowboys insignia, ACT/Southern NSW in Canberra-green and Victorian staff all in Storm colours.

As to the NRL competition, the current composition is made up of 10 NSW sides (of which nine are based in Sydney), one in the ACT, three in Queensland, one in Victoria and one in New Zealand.

Let’s talk new markets.

Perth and another Kiwi side are a must soon. Both are large league hungry markets containing sizeable populations with perfect TV credentials. I would love to say include Adelaide, Tasmania or Northern Territory but we are some way off of those possibilities yet.

As to the NSW and ACT league heartland, about 7.5 million people are serviced by 11 sides and Queensland has a fast growing 4.7 million with three sides. Meanwhile, the heartland of Papua New Guinea (where league is the official national sport) has 7 million people and no team.

Papua New Guinea is a must and should be fast tracked through infrastructure spending.

The Central Coast would love a side but the Sydney basin is well served with nine sides already, which makes their case hard. The Queensland bids have stronger cases and with their TV audience, at least one more side north of the Tweed is a must.

The poor old Cronulla Sharks often get scapegoated as the Sydney team which needs to be relocated, as well they should. They have a small fan-base and geographically little population expansion room.

Papua New Guinea would be a good fit for them – in baby steps.

The NRL could fund an academy of young Papua New Guinea players at Cronulla, while the Sharks play some home games in Port Moresby when a stadium is ready.

Low crowd pulling games against the likes of North Queensland, New Zealand, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Penrith and possibly Newcastle played in PNG would suddenly have large, vocal crowds.

Papua New Guinea would embrace the Sharks as their team and open up a new market of fans. The NRL could help Cronulla top up their membership-ticketed games by allowing them to be used at away matches against other Sydney clubs.

The Roosters too have growth and fickle fan problems but their deep pockets save them quite a bit. The Central Coast might look good for them.

Stadiums are another area where the AFL is killing league. The old Sydney Showground, or ACT government funding AFL games shows just how far ahead the AFL is in this department.

League has up to five teams using Homebush, whereas a boutique rectangular stadium at the showground would have suited most NRL games.

Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane is the best. It’s close to the city, has two accessible train stations and easy car/bus drop off access. Melbourne will benefit long-term from their upgraded stadium, as too Newcastle.

The Gold Coast have a great stadium close to rail but it is away from the city action at Robina, while the AFL have their stadium closer to the action at Carrara/Broadbeach. Rail from Robina to Broadbeach/Surfers is the only long term fix.

Townsville and Canberra both need new modern stadiums in the city and Canberra’s should be indoor. Mt Smart in New Zealand is a good stadium but it is 20 minutes train ride out of the city.

Let’s finish with Sydney. Financing over 11 quality stadiums for each team will not work. Big games deserve the best venues. ANZ is great for Origin, grand finals, big preliminary finals and the odd big club game but otherwise it’s too large.

Allianz is fine but it’s not really in the city, is hard to access directly by train (you usually need buses or cabs), is crying out for a roof, is getting a bit old and the new light rail won’t move enough people.

Sydney has nine teams, yet lacks a stadium in the heart of the city, like Brisbane or Melbourne. It needs its own ‘Suncorp’ somewhere near Circular Quay or the Domain so it can capitalise on trains, buses, ferries, tourists and bored city workers from Thursday to Monday nights.

It’s time for the NRL to influence the NSW government in the same way the AFL does. The Queensland Government has built new state of the art stadiums with Suncorp and Skilled in the last 10 years, Victoria built AAMI, Auckland upgraded both Mt Smart and Eden Park, while NSW government have only majorly upgraded Newcastle and partially upgraded Wollongong

Even the partial upgrade of Allianz (SFS) still hasn’t solved the main issue of rail transport.

It’s about time the NRL pressured the supposed home of rugby league that is NSW.

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