Here are a few things I think about Round 2 of the NRL season.
What would the NRL look like if we hit the reset button?
This time next year the NRL as we know it may cease to exist. It’s an unlikely scenario, but if the season is postponed or abandoned due to the impact of COVID-19, it’s a distinct possibility.
It’s common knowledge that rugby league clubs survive year to year. They’re dependent on their $13 million annual allowance from the NRL to keep their doors open. This means if games stop being played and the money stops flowing, most clubs will face financial ruin within a matter of months.
What if the worst-case scenario plays out – if the season is suspended indefinitely and all 16 clubs are forced to fold? If we were faced with the unique opportunity of starting over, what would a new NRL competition look like?
Let’s start with an easy fix: more teams in Queensland. As much as it stings my proud Blue heart to admit it, Queensland is rugby league heartland. Having only three teams supporting a population of five million rabid fans is borderline negligent.
I’d have two clubs based in Brisbane. This would allow the utilisation of Suncorp Stadium every weekend and would create a fierce local rivalry, which is the lifeblood of rugby league. It would also have the added benefit of stifling the AFL’s gradual encroachment in the region.
One of the Brisbane sides could be based south-west of the CBD and incorporate fans from Ipswich and Toowoomba, while the other could be based in the north and target fans all the way up to the Sunshine Coast.
North Queensland has a sparkling new stadium and a track record of drawing good crowds, earning them the right to keep a team. Adding in a Central Queensland club based out of Rockhampton and drawing a fan-base from Mackay to Hervey Bay would further cement the game in that region and provide another local derby.
And let’s not forget the Gold Coast. Rugby league may have tried and failed to establish a successful team in this region, but the stakes are too high not to keep trying. The missing ingredient to making rugby league work on the glitter strip is on-field success. And as the Cowboys proved a decade ago, it only takes one player.
Across the ditch the addition of another team would be an enormous step to growing the game outside of Australia. Staging a game of rugby league in New Zealand every weekend would significantly boost interest in a code normally stuck playing second fiddle to rugby.
I would also look at basing a team in the Pacific Islands. While the logistics would be daunting, the Toronto Wolfpack proved that anything is possible with enough planning. And you only have to look at the atmosphere generated in the recent Tongan and Samoan Tests to imagine the level of support this team would receive.
Teams in Melbourne, Newcastle and Canberra are no-brainers, but I would also add a club based out of the Central Coast. As the eighth-most populated city in Australia and boasting a fanatical supporter base that makes Novocastrians look like fair-weather fans, these people deserve a team to call their own.
Similarly deserving of an NRL franchise are the people of country New South Wales. Rugby league has a proud history of bush footy and have supplied some of the game’s most celebrated players. The team could be based in Tamworth and play home games in country towns like Coffs Harbour, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Bega and Mudgee.
And now it gets interesting: what to do with the Sydney teams? Setting aside loyalties, allegiances and good old-fashion rugby league biases, it’s not too hard to put a plan together.
I’d keep a side on Northern Beaches, but I would also reinstate a club in Northern Sydney. There is a massive catchment from Milson’s Point to Hornsby and out into the Hills district that currently isn’t represented by a rugby league team, and that needs to change.
A Western Sydney club is a must, spanning from Penrith to Parramatta. Likewise, a team representing the people of Southern Sydney is not negotiable, which would include supporters from Cronulla to Campbelltown and down to Wollongong.
That leaves a final team in the heart of Sydney. And while it may be easier to buy a sixpack of Sorbent than to convince fans of the Rabbitohs and Roosters to join forces, it makes sense from a geographical perspective. They’ll just need to learn to play nice.
To recap, here is my post-coronavirus rugby league new world order:
Face of the franchise
If you were in charge of one of the 18 new abovementioned clubs in the NRL, who would you select to be the centrepiece of your new team?
Conventional wisdom would suggest a young halfback or maybe a hooker. The Andrew Johns or Cameron Smith type that you can build your team around for the next decade. But when I look through the current NRL rosters I’m not sure that player exists.
A superstar fullback is another possible option. You only had to watch the Roosters take on the Sea Eagles over the weekend to see how valuable a crafty custodian can be. But with plenty of wear on James Tedesco’s tyres, Kalyn Ponga’s commitment to the game uncertain and Tom Trbojevic’s injury history, I’m nervous about making them the face of my franchise.
Instead I’m going with Payne Haas. The Brisbane prop, who is still just 20 years of age, is already one of the most dominant forwards in the competition. His remarkable stamina and ability to change the course of a game are unrivalled at his position, and you get the feeling he has only just scratched the surface of his potential.
Haas has a similar impact on the game as James Taumalolo or Sam Burgess, where his presence alone lifts the confidence of those around him. This is the man I want as the foundation of my club.
Brad Fittler must have been drooling all over his television screen after watching the Roosters take on Manly. The performances of opposing fullbacks James Tedesco and Tom Trbojevic were as good as I have seen in years.
Tedesco was a force in attack. Running for over 270 metres and busting eight tackles, he popped up all over the field with the unpredictability of a whack-a-mole. His double chip and chase was shades of Brett Mullins two decades ago. And yet he wasn’t even the best fullback in the game.
On the other side of the field Tom Trbojevic was unstoppable. He mixed his usual dominant attacking game with a sort of desperate brutality in defence that he hasn’t previously shown. The try-saving efforts against Brett Morris and especially Luke Keary were phenomenal. He was the difference between the two sides.
At this point in time there is nothing between the two players. Both are at the top of their game, and I look forward to watching them battle it out for the New South Wales No. 1 jumper. So good was their display that for the first time in living memory I actually wished Kevin Walters had been commentating the game.
Do bums on seats really matter?
I thought I’d hate watching games without the roar of the crowd. I was expecting that the lack of atmosphere would impact the viewing experience, but to be honest, after the initial novelty wore off, I didn’t notice it.
The only time I found it a bit awkward was after a try was scored. More than once a player crossed the stripe, jumped to his feet and started making a few celebratory gestures to the crowd, only to remember that the stadium was empty.
I figured the intensity of some games would wane without the involvement of the crowd, but that certainly wasn’t the case. The Sea Eagles and Roosters tore one another apart with the ferocity of a finals game.
And maybe it’s just me, but I have definitely noticed an improvement in the quality of the officiating. Without the pressure of a raucous home crowd baying for their blood as they make hundreds of split-second decisions under heavy fatigue, the referees are getting it right more often than not.
The irony of the situation is surely not lost on the NRL. They spent countless hours trying to find ways to boost crowd attendance only to discover that the product is just as strong, if not stronger, with empty stadiums. Perhaps the focus moving forward should be on enhancing the televised product rather than trying to enhance the game-day experience.