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Opinion

Setting up the future of Country Rugby League

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Mick Holland new author
Roar Rookie
1st December, 2019
23

Friday, 18 of October 2019, was a historic day in rugby league, yet almost nothing has been written about it.

If you visit the Country Rugby League website, you’ll see what I’m talking about. CRL no longer exists; it’s now just New South Wales Rugby League.

Yes, you read that right. After 84 years Country Rugby League has been abandoned and is now just NSWRL, which is exciting because although I would love to see 20 teams in the NRL with 20 rounds and State of Origin, having standalone weekends won’t happen for a while,

There is talk of two new teams entering the competition when the next TV deal runs out in 2023, which would make it an 18-team tournament. However, that’s still a few years away, so we’re stuck with the current 16 teams. That’s fine at the moment, although I’d still like to see 20 rounds and State of Origin as a standalone

Regardless, this article is not about the NRL; it’s about the second-tier competitions, in particular NSWRL, which now has full control over all of NSW rugby, just as Queensland Rugby League does up north.

There have been talks over the years about expanding NSWRL and QLDRL to the same number of teams as the NRL, which is 16. Currently there are 12 in the NSWRL Canterbury Cup, so another four teams are needed. The QLDRL Intrust Cup has 14 teams, including the PNG Hunters, so another two are needed. I’ll get back to that.

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

The NSWRL could expand the competition to include Fiji, but I would like to see three second-tier competitions: NSWRL, QLDRL and a New Zealand tournament that could include teams from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, which would give a direct pathway to the NRL and the rest of the teams coming from New Zealand.

This would mean the Warriors would not compete in the Canterbury Cup, which would reduce the tournament to 11 teams. That of course would mean we wouldn’t be expanding the NSWRL and that five teams would then be needed to reach 16 clubs. But I have a solution.

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We want rugby league to prosper in the bush, yet it’s declining. To bolster the game in the regions, we should give country folk teams in the NSWRL, allowing them to play against the famous Sydney teams on a regular basis with the chance to play on grand final day against a QLDRL team, in turn boosting rugby league in these areas.

With five openings to make 16, my choices come from the five rugby league zones that exist in NSW currently without teams. We want towns that are at least big enough to have a university, which we’ll need to develop players, plus these towns might one day be larger cities, so we’d be locking in league in these locations to futureproof the game.

The first new team would be a North Coast Dolphins team based in Coffs Harbour. We would also have the New England Razorbacks based in Tamworth, the Western NSW Rams based in Bathurst and the Riverina Bulls based in Wagga Wagga.

The fifth team might not be considered a country side, but I’m going to include the Central Coast Centurions in anyway because the region needs at least a team to represent them in the NSW Cup.

These clubs would run independently of the NRL clubs and make money by leasing their players out until they are full-time at NRL level.

I’m not expert on TV rights, so I’ll leave the best options for broadcast – some games on free-to-air TV, others on Foxtel – to those who know more about it.

The Jersey Flegg Cup, SG Ball Cup and Harold Mathews Cup could mirror this competition with the exception of Eastern Suburbs and Cronulla, with Newtown not competing except for Canterbury Cup.

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The QLDRL with 14 teams could add a side from Darwin (Darwin Destroyers) because there is a small rugby league stadium being built there. A semi-pro team would give the people of Northern Territory direct access to the NRL.

My other team of choice to enter the QLDRL is West Coast Pirates, who could start the process of becoming a professional club.

If the NRL expands to 18 teams, should the QLDRL and the NSWRL do likewise? My OCD says yes, so I’d put new teams in Adelaide and Toowoomba for the Queensland tournament.

It’s a little bit difficult to pick new sides for New South Wales. We could have a team from Tasmania to get development happening down south before the AFL takes over the Apple Isle completely, while a Victorian team could act as reserves for Melbourne.

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Alternatively we could look at the 12 teams we have, with Wentworthville leaving and being replaced by the Eels in 2020.

Canberra using Mounties as their reserves could revert back to Canberra and leave Mounties and Wentworthville to the Ron Massey Cup.

We have North Sydney acting as reserves for the Roosters, which I think is a good move, while Newtown is the Sharks reserve team, which is going really well at the moment.

Manly are using Blacktown, but I’m not sure how long that will last as they came last this year, plus it’s kind of a weird set-up geographically. They could revert back to Manly, but that’s up to them.

Newcastle, Penrith, Canterbury, Souths and St George Illawarra are the same as their NRL counterparts, but Canterbury plays at Belmore and Souths play at Redfern.

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Wests Tigers use the Western Suburbs Magpies. I like seeing the Magpies running around again.

This is where I’m going to complicate things. Instead of adding a Victorian and Tasmanian team, which might not be ready for a second-tier team for a while, and with the Storm using teams from the Queensland Cup, two teams could instead be added from Sydney.

One could be Balmain, while there is still Western Suburbs Magpies and the other St George Dragons.

The Illawarra Steelers have a team as well, but because they are merged clubs, I’m not sure how it would work out.

But if you look at the competition as a whole, it could be a retro-style tournament with country teams competing. NRL teams, meanwhile, would move forward into bigger and better stadiums in the future, leaving old grounds like the Belmore, Henson Park, North Sydney Oval and Leichhardt to be used, which would be popular.

I’m no expert, but I’ve looked into it a bit would just like to see the NRL with a strong development strategy that has all the rugby league areas covered and represented without the big expense of having a failed NRL team. It would mean more teams in the lower tiers, which would cause the standard to drop if done too quickly. The key is to add a team or two over the next few years and then another two and so on so that the standard doesn’t drop too fast, and over time, as the game grows, the competition would strengthen.

What do you think, Roarers?