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Last month we heard the announcement of a looming merger between the NSWRL and Country Rugby League, which would see rugby league in NSW governed by one body for the first time in almost a century.
While discussions could take up to two years, both parties have agreed to a memorandum of understanding expressing their common objectives and intentions.
From a fan’s perspective the merger would bring the long-awaited statewide NSW Platinum League a step closer. This lower division professional competition would operate in tandem with the Queensland Cup, with teams spread across the state rather than consolidating within the Sydney metropolitan area.
An obvious criterium for the Platinum League is for it to have standalone clubs rather than reserve NRL squads playing with NRL branding. This could ensure the survival of clubs with significant heritage value and also allow country regions to develop teams that truly represent their values.
Like the Queensland Cup, fans have expected the Platinum League to be launched as the premier professional competition in the state – as the second tier of rugby league operating one level below the NRL. Since 2015 the top second-tier clubs from NSW and Queensland have played a curtain-raiser to the NRL grand final in the NRL State Championship.
In essence, fans would expect the Platinum League to replace the NSW Cup, currently known as the Intrust Super Premiership.
But the current membership model of NSWRL could see the Platinum League relegated to a third-tier competition, which could restrict the appeal of the competition and limit opportunities for television broadcasting.
The reason is quite simple – the NSWRL is controlled by NRL clubs that desperately need a reserve-grade competition at the second tier to maintain full control of their reserve squads and junior pathways.
Granted, many NRL clubs have successfully outsourced their reserve squads to non-NRL clubs, and these agreements initially enabled the NSW Cup to evolve into a standalone competition operating from suburban grounds like Henson Park in Marrickville and North Sydney Oval.
The outsourcing agreements were most popular during the era of the under-20s National Youth Competition (NYC), which was supported by NRL clubs in the hope that it would eventually become a national reserve grade.
But the NYC failed to live up to expectations and NRL coaches became increasingly frustrated about the fragmented pathway from under-20s to graduation into the NRL, with the majority of NYC graduates needing to spend some time in the NSW Cup before obtaining an NRL contract. The NYC was eventually abolished after the 2017 season.
The latest trend sees the NSW Cup return to a reserve grade competition for the NSW-based NRL clubs and directly mirror the under-20s Jersey Flegg, under-18s SG Ball and under-16s Harold Matthews cups in which teams participate with their NRL club names and colours.
Last month the Parramatta Eels and South Sydney Rabbitohs both announced their intention to re-enter teams in the NSW Cup, while the Wyong Roos and Wentworthville will both withdraw from the NSW Cup. The North Sydney Bears will shift their allegiance from Souths to the Sydney Roosters.
At present the third tier of rugby league in NSW is the semi-professional Ron Massey Cup, which comprises standalone clubs from Sydney but has previously admitted clubs from the Central Coast and Shellharbour.
At a junior level the CRL runs the under-18s Laurie Daley Cup and the under-16s Andrew Johns Cup throughout regional areas, and these teams have formalised ties to NRL clubs. The intention of these competitions was always to allow junior players to spend more time at home with their families and not be forced into moving to the big smoke at a young age. These competitions could be viewed as the lower-tier version of the SG Ball and Harold Matthews cups.
My prediction is that the CRL and NSWRL merger will bring about a standalone Platinum League, which will build on the recent NRL-CRL junior affiliations we have seen in the Andrew Johns and Laurie Daley cups, and utilise the structures, skills and expertise from the Ron Massey Cup.
The competition could exploit the heritage value of former top-tier clubs like the North Sydney Bears, Newtown Jets, Illawarra Steelers and even the Western Rams, who famously won the inaugural preseason Amco Cup in 1974 against top-tier sides.
A 12-team competition spanning all regions of NSW, including the Sydney metropolitan region plus one interstate development team (with NRL affiliations in brackets), would look something like this:
*denotes formal ties would still need to be established.
The challenges for this statewide competition will be how to maintain relevance and attract corporate sponsors and television broadcasting opportunities when operating from the third-tier of rugby league.