Rugby league is back! I don’t know about you, but I quite enjoyed casting aside the negativity and noise about the Perth nines tournament and taking in two days of good clean rugby league fun.
For all the huffing and puffing of those who thought the weekend was a waste of time, there were great skills on show from the men and women, a good vibe from the crowd and, in true rugby league fashion, there was even room for a high-quality #refsfault after the Dragons scored a hilariously dodgy try to win their quarter-final.
Some folks took it pretty seriously (looking at you, NRL Twitter), some took it for what it was – an exhibition (looking at you, Canberra) – and others left it alone, which is fine too. It’s mid-February, way too early to be 100 per cent fired up about the NRL.
So we should absorb the nines and move on to the coming All Star game, world club challenge and trial matches, but to be honest I can’t do that until I get one little thing off my chest.
What was with all the Perth hate?
The host city of the NRL nines was copping it for the heat because on Day 1 temperatures were in the mid to high 30s, then for team selections because most clubs took their kids along, then for supposedly low crowds, you name it.
It was a free-for-all on the western capital that gave a big impression of being a preordained hit job by certain people.
Indeed, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph felt fit to include this definite statement in a wrap of the tournament:
“Poor attendances at the Nines over the weekend should end any debate about having a team from Western Australia in any expanded NRL competition.”
Let’s tee up how completely vacuous that claim is.
The international nines held last October – in much, much friendlier weather – at the shiny new Bankwest Stadium drew 12,528 on Friday night and 15,684 on Saturday. That’s 28,212 all up.
Friday’s Day 1 in Perth got 10,128, Day 2 attracted 14,739. That’s 24,867, barely less than Sydney and a little more than the 2017 Auckland nines, which drew in approximately 22,000 over two days.
Day 2’s crowd was up against the AFLW western derby at Perth Stadium (a crowd of 35,000-odd) and a Perth Wildcats NBL game (13,493). Getting almost 15,000 to HBF Park was pretty damn good.
I’ve said before how Perth and West Australians will get behind a team of their own. Perth teams constantly draw higher average crowds across a number of sports, from Aussie Eules all the way down to baseball. But it has to be a team of their own, not a relocated charity job or a defunct, broke failure.
All these whacks for Perth got the green light back in December 2019, when newly appointed chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission Peter V’landys spoke to the media.
He made it clear he saw no value in getting into Western Australia, saying the NRL “want to dominate the market in Queensland” and that the ARLC should “forget wasting millions in rusted-on AFL states.”
“We must undertake a full analysis of growth markets but Perth does not have a huge league audience,” V’landys said.
So you acknowledge you must undertake a full analysis but at the same time can definitively state Perth does not have a huge audience.
That’s the same Perth who averaged over 10,000 for their own team between 1995-97 and average almost 14,500 crowds as neutrals when NRL games are held in town.
The same Perth who crammed 59,721 into Perth Stadium for Game 2 of last year’s State of Origin series.
The same Perth which is the capital of a state that has more active junior and senior rugby league clubs than Victoria, home of the Melbourne Storm.
In 2019 St George Illawarra averaged 9813 per home game. Penrith averaged 12,482. The Gold Coast Titans averaged 11,587 and Cronulla 12,224. Are you seriously telling me you don’t think a new Perth team would at least match those figures at the boutique 20,000-seat HBF Park?
If you wanted confirmation that the NRL now has zero ambition beyond tending to its front fence, it is here in another V’Landys quote: “Then there is the concern around flying NRL players five hours when we already hear criticism of player workloads and how taxing the season is on the stars of the game.”
Far as reasons to avoid expansion go, that’s possibly the most half-arsed I’ve ever read. The fact it was actually said out loud shows there is absolutely no appetite in the NRL and ARLC for big-time, long-term thinking, and that is a real shame.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d be bemoaning the fact that after a brief flourish of optimism and big-picture possibilities rugby league in Australia is settling back into its butt groove on the couch and refusing to get up for anybody.
I really hope I’m wrong. I want to be wrong, and there’s a long way to go in 2020, so I can be wrong, but the early signs aren’t great.