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It's evolution, baby! Why the NRL needs to go back to the future

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Expert
2nd September, 2019
81
1985 Reads

I’ve recently found myself reading a lot of Sydney newspapers from October, 1996.

Why? It’s a book I’m working on. Now, this was the time immediately after most of the court orders banning Super League were overturned, clearing the rebel competition to start the following year.

Had Optus Vision not tipped in another $120 million at the time, we’d have a very different rugby league competition in Australia now. The ARL was on he brink of collapse, its clubs would have been forced to the bargaining table. Of course, Optus Vision no longer exists.

The thing that really strikes me about these seismic revelations each day in the paper then is that massive, massive developments – front page any day of the week today – were buried in the news stories before even more seismic news in the first paragraphs.

St George were offered Super League’s Melbourne franchise. You’ve got to read ten paragraphs before you find out that gem. Parramatta to hold merger talks with Penrith? Maybe in the second column of that day’s story…

It’s easy to forget how completely the sport was turned on its head back then and how little interest there was in actual matches. A sentence then would be a double-page spread now.

Which brings us to the latest round of relocation/elimination talk.

Personally I’m not convinced the game in Australia has enough courage to do this yet – but it’s reassuring it keeps coming up. If it wasn’t part of the natural evolution of a national pro sports league, it wouldn’t keep coming up.

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But it is.

For some reason Australian professional sport finds itself split between the tribalism of England and the commercialism of North America – they are tectonic plates which rub constantly and occasionally cause tremors and earthquakes.

If Channel Nine gets its way on one less NSW team, they’re be an earthquake – but nothing like the destruction of those years in the mid to late-nineties. We got over those years and we’ll get over this too.

The problem we have is that the team currently have licenses and therefore will have to be paid to move. The taker, then, will be the club that needs the money now – not the team that the sport needs to shift for its continued prosperity.

The Brisbane Broncos after a try is scored against them.

The Broncos are TV gold (and maroon) (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

But that’s how we make decisions in rugby league. That’s how we decided to be rugby league.

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On that basis, Cronulla perhaps look the most vulnerable. If there was $100 million sitting on a street corner somewhere, of the Sydney clubs Cronulla would probably lead the race to find it.

One thing I learned from the Super League War is that IP, colours, logos and tribalism matter. But that doesn’t teach me that those things aren’t transferable. Brisbane and Sydney have proven that in the AFL.

Rugby league’s culture is just too bottom-line and feudal in nature to have been able to seriously consider it until now. Everyone’s being paid a fortune to stay where they are.

Funny, if Optus Vision hadn’t come up with the dosh 13 Octobers ago, we’d already have a decentralised competition. Now, it’s probably going to cost as much as they paid to stop it, to make it happen.