Rugby league has become stagnant. Many detractors bemoan the inability of the current NRL administration to incur the inroads AFL are making into rugby league heartlands.
Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, it is easy to quote statistics and make a seemingly strong argument for either side. What is undeniable though is that the AFL has had a method to maintain it’s billing as number one code in Australia for over two decades now, and that method is a successful one.
They were steadfast with their original decision to shift teams from a saturated Melbourne market to Sydney and Brisbane, and after weathering tough times have reaped the rewards from those strong choices.
They are now steadfast in their to expansion with GWS and Gold Coast, these two franchises will see tough times as well but in the end the AFL understands that the big picture is more important than any seasonal crises.
The NRL on the other hand, bundle and bungle from negative decision to negative decision, and act as if they are constantly in survival mode. The paradox of this behaviour is that the NRL administration reflects none of the admirable qualities that rugby league itself possesses. The NRL administration is timid to put it mildly.
Very much like our on-field officials the NRL prefers to review decisions, analyse them within an inch of their life, frustrating all of those involved. Until the road of least resistance is to make the easy choice because they are terrified of being responsible. Paralysis by analysis.
Admittedly rugby league has a very vocal community of coaches, ex-players, commentators, and a particularly vicious media following that make all operations seem like a life or death tightrope walk.
There are constantly juxtaposed views between this community, leaving large portions of followers disappointed no matter what the plan of attack.
The reality though is the problem of constantly disappointed factions is relevant to any administration across all business sectors. So rather than pander to these factions as the NRL administration does now, this administration or the next needs to find the courage to make strong choices, not popular ones.
The strongest choice facing the NRL right now is if it should expand the competition. The problem is that this should not be a question because the answer is mandatory, add two or three teams in 2018 and announce it immediately. Shock, awe, and conquering heroes.
So where to expand?
The easiest way to look at this answer is where do the AFL and rugby union not want the NRL to have a stronger presence. With that in mind there are three natural locations that could immediately accommodate an NRL side and therefore increase the overall popularity and value of the code.
The argument that the Warriors have not yet proven that an New Zealand team is viable is a ridiculous one. The NRL owes New Zealand a second team at the very least. The Warriors are in fact robbed of the greatest game on an NRL calendar outside of finals: the local derby.
It is no coincidence that the Queensland Origin teams dominance coincided with the introduction of a third NRL team in the sunshine state.
The Kangaroos and Kiwis rivalry on the other hand loses credibility immediately because New Zealand have only one professional rugby league team. If you were to add one more team, and even add a third team in the long term, you then inherently increase New Zealand rugby league’s value, scope, and public investment in international clashes.
Christchurch has a population of 380k + with the incumbent on the winter sporting landscape being the Crusaders Super Rugby franchise. There is plenty of meat on that bone for a league team and many Crusaders fans would gladly support both teams.
The Broncos have had this gold field to themselves for long enough, Brisbane can easily support a second team and deserves a sold out Lang Park for an annual Brisbane versus Brisbane clash.
Queensland has it’s rugby league support for three teams spread out over the population of 4.7 million, and a good portion of the Titans support you could argue actually come for the northern tip of NSW.
Brisbane covers 2.1 million of this population with one NRL team. NSW has eleven teams across it’s 7.5 million, with nine of those teams being in Sydney among a fairly disinterested 4.3 million.
The numbers are simple and overwhelming, Queensland has the junior support, has player talent, and the thirst for another team. Just get it done already and lock down the state.
The western frontier should’ve been a forgone conclusion for the NRL a long time ago. To be a national game you need to have a national footprint. Staging away clashes in Perth to an non-invested public is no measure for viability or success.
The Perth decision is very similar to the Melbourne one almost twenty years ago, you just need to do it and wear the doubt and growing pains for ten years. Many will call for the “experiment” to be scrapped every time the Perth franchise waivers, and scream that the NRL should stick to the heartlands.
Just as they did with Melbourne the NRL just needs to stand strong and stick it out. Before you know it twenty years has passed and you have a genuine premiership threat with a loyal local following, adding further strength to the code.
Notable mentions include Darwin, Adelaide, Central Coast NSW and Central Queensland.