This weekend showed us what we should have known already: that the regions must be catered for to grow the NRL in Australia.
The NRL’s greatest shame is the Central Coast, where there’s a large rugby league culture and a 90-year-old team that’s been waiting for recognition since 1999.
We were made aware of this ridiculous situation by the crowd of over 19,000 people that rocked up to the Central Coast Stadium on Sunday to see the Storm take on the Rabbitohs. At the same time Canberra provided a similarly large crowd for the other blockbuster game when the 2018 Roosters met the Raiders.
We are used to the occasional large crowd in Sydney when Parramatta meet some of their traditional rivals. Games between the Roosters and the Buldogs, for example, usually attract crowds of only 10,000 to 15,000 spectators.
I can hear the detractors now. “Yes, but crowd numbers are not everything. What about television ratings? What about memberships, balance sheets, debt levels and history?”.
These things are important, but they don’t encourage the growth of the code – they only serve as justification for not removing anyone from the existing competition.
In the last week Andrew Johns and Gorden Tallis have ventured into print to say the code must grow, but with so many teams in Sydney this seems an impossibility. Who goes?
The answer at this time is nobody. To close a club or amalgamate it would probably require a 75 per cent majority of club members and of course the blessing of the NRL Commission.
My solution is not to subtract but to add. Eventually market forces will reduce the Sydney numbers, but until then the NRL Commission must make plans to install the Central Coast Bears as the next club as part of the NRL.
What about the dreaded bye? Well, here comes my next crazy suggestion: install another team in Logan in Queensland. This will even the numbers. They can play out of Suncorp on alternate weekends.
I am sure this will only add to the following of the code throughout Australia. The TV people will rub their hands together at the thought of more games, more ratings and a wider spread of followers.
Let’s not go crazy – Perth, Adelaide and Papua New Guinea can wait until they are more established.
The NRL Commission must try to plan for the next 20 years, not just next month. If they adopt a sensible long-term growth plan, we can look forward to rugby league becoming the best-run football code in Australia.