Should the NRL be limited to 16 teams?

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Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith yesterday called for the NRL to tackle the AFL head-on and re-examine the issue of expansion.

“I think overall everyone would agree we are a bit behind (the AFL) at the moment given they are a truly national game … if we want to grow the game and we want to be the best code in the country we need to expand,” Smith said.

Expand how? TV audiences? Total crowds? Interest in AFL strongholds?

Clearly expansion would be aimed at improvement in the last category. That said, gains can be made without having a team in a given city. More club games taken to Perth combined with better TV coverage could make a large dent in that kind of market.

League can also vastly improve average crowd numbers. I think the ARLC’s blueprint for an average crowd of 20,000 by 2018 is a smart goal – realistic and achievable.

If attained, that would qualify as ‘expansion’ of a kind, as would increasing junior numbers in league territories.

But Cameron Smith isn’t talking about that. He wants teams in Perth, Adelaide, the south island of New Zealand and probably another in Brisbane.

Which brings me to the last time League undertook a major expansion effort: 1995.

Remember? Four new teams, without any contraction in Sydney, which meant 20 teams.

Twenty.

It was a disaster. At least a third of the teams had no chance to compete, which is why 40 and 50 point blowouts were frequent.

Is the salary cap more efficient than it was then? Probably. The worst teams in our current 16-team setup don’t look as bad as the ‘Sydney’ Tigers, South Sydney, Gold Coast, or the then-debutant Cowboys team.

The cap has evened out talent to some extent. However, the primary question when facing expansion shouldn’t be whether or not we have enough talent to make all 18 teams reasonably competitive.

The only question to ask must be: are there enough players to make the majority of teams watchable?

Penrith was not fun to watch last year. Parramatta was a little better, thanks to comedy acts performed by Ben Roberts, Chris Sandow and the whole team joining together to make us laugh.

St George-Illawarra were bland, with very little gamebreaking talent on display. Gold Coast has some nice kids but were still hard to sit through.

Discipline, strong forward running, defensive commitment and enthusiasm might win you eight or nine games in a season. Maybe even close to half if you’re lucky.

Which isn’t absolutely awful. You could even say you were a competitive team in most games.

But that won’t attract new fans in Perth, Adelaide or Dunedin. Teams need talent.

New fans will tell their friends about rugby league if they see brilliant running, clever sleight-of-hand playmaking, skillful kicking and destructive forward play that opens up the defence.

I don’t think we have enough of those guys to justify 18 teams. Why do I think this? We’ve never had enough before.

Oh, and NSW’s best halfback is Mitchell Pearce, its best fullback is a combination of Brett Stewart, Josh Dugan and Jarryd Hayne and its best five-eighth is … yeah.

So we do one of two things. We stick with what we have, which is a fantastic competition with a decent spread of talent.

Or we tag on two more teams and have a less-fantastic competition with a less-decent spread of talent, with the possibility of three or four Sydney Tiger 1995 reincarnations.

Or – yep, I meant three things – we further rationalize Sydney, to make room for a Perth team and second Brisbane/New Zealand club.

Guess which one I’d be voting for.

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