If the NRL is to be divided into two conferences for the rest of this season, the Rabbitohs, Roosters and Eels have to be in the regional conference.
While the conference system isn’t a lock, it’s reportedly still on the table and generally it’s proposed that there will be a Sydney conference based out of Homebush and a regional conference playing out of somewhere like Gladstone.
However, there are nine Sydney teams and seven non-Sydney teams, so how do we split them?
The method most commonly suggested is to send the Dragons off to play in the regional conference, because they are St George Illawarra and Illawarra ain’t Sydney. Sure, St George is closer to ANZ Stadium than Cronulla, Manly, Bondi or Penrith, but in these unprecedented times, we’ve all got to make sacrifices.
Except that’s the part about the conference model that is so fundamentally flawed: eight Sydney teams make no sacrifice.
In fact, they get a leg-up the likes of which they’ve never received before.
If you think the NRL is already divided into the haves and have nots, wait until you see what life is like when eight teams spend half their season on planes and in hotel rooms, while the Sydney teams sleep in their own beds seven nights a week.
That’s assuming the regional teams will be allowed to fly in and fly out for their games, although there’s still the possibility that they’ll simply be locked down in a hotel facility for the season, unable to leave except to play.
Imagine how over it they’ll be come finals time, when they finally square off against a group of players who have had the massive psychological advantage of going home every day, where they can switch off from footy and not be around the same bloody people – many of whom they may not have a particularly cordial personal relationship with, because we’re not mates with everyone we work with – 24/7.
While it may only be for a few well-paid months, the players in the regional conference will be toughing it out for the same amount of time and the same amount of money as the Sydney players.
Talk of making sacrifices doesn’t really wash in those circumstances.
Not for nothing either but which of the two conferences do you think is more likely to end up having a season-threatening coronavirus outbreak – the one based in the city with the nation’s highest infection rate, where players are allowed to interact with the general public by going to the shops, or the lockdown comp in a town with one recorded COVID-19 case?
Obviously, the NRL is an uneven playing field, with the Sydney teams already doing far less travel, particularly compared to the likes of the Cowboys or the Warriors. In fact, the sheer amount of time spent on planes is a reasonable excuse as to why the New Zealand club have never won a premiership.
But if Parramatta got to play out of Bankwest every week they’d be undefeated, yet when you put them on the road their wheels fall off.
Doing some travel is fairer than doing no travel.
Furthermore, both the Knights and Raiders are within driving distance of the Olympic Stadium, why don’t they get a bus in on game day?
Obviously if we’re going to have a hub in Sydney, it makes sense to have teams who can stay at their home bases play there. So we’ll keep St George Illawarra, Newcastle and Canberra in this system, then send the Roosters, Eels and Rabbitohs to play out of the hotel in Central Queensland for four months.
It’ll cost the same for the NRL and if someone’s got to make sacrifices, why not the reigning premiers and the two Sydney teams with the most ticketed members?
Now watch the fans of those clubs, not to mention Nick Politis, blow up at the prospect of this happening. It’s why I picked those three clubs to be sent away – they’ll whinge the loudest.
Because it’s unfair. But what do I care? My club isn’t disadvantaged anymore.
And it’s what’s so infuriating about conferences being put forward every couple of years – those who tout its merits always talk up how good it would be for the Sydney teams, while failing to mention how massively unfair it is for the rest.
“What the fans want – in Sydney particularly – is rivalry. More local derbies,” Paul Crawley told NRL 360 after Cronulla played Penrith in the 2018 semis and not even 20,000 people turned up.
So after a local derby with a do-or-die outcome couldn’t attract a decent crowd in a city of 5 million people, the solution put forward was to reward these teams with more of these games?
Phil Gould has been an advocate for conferences for years, always split along Sydney and non-Sydney lines, yet in an episode of the Six Tackles with Gus podcast in March last year, he outlined why we need conferences before obliviously giving one of the strongest reasons against them.
“The teams that survive outside Sydney, and they will tell you, the North Queenslands and the Warriors and the Broncos and the Melbourne Storms, survive on the fact they’re playing against the big brands in Sydney, like your Dragons and your Roosters,” Gould said.
“It’s the Sydney brands, because this was once a Sydney competition, they’re the most entrenched and traditional brands.”
So the regional teams only survive by playing the Sydney clubs – sorry, brands – therefore we should split the comp so the regional teams barely ever play the Sydney brands?
Then think of the other unintended consequences, such as at the recruitment table.
A player with a young family has two offers in front of him, each for equal money – one to play for the Storm and therefore spend half the season on the road, the other for the Bulldogs, which virtually guarantees he’ll spend less than a week away from home all year.
Jokes about escaping crying babies aside, which club do you think the player chooses? Perhaps more importantly, which club is the player’s partner pushing him towards?
Or what about on grand final day? The NSW Government have a deal with the NRL that guarantees the biggest match of the year will be played in the Harbour City until 2046.
That means the team from the Sydney conference will always have a home crowd, as well as the advantage of playing at a ground they have likely spent half of every season on, becoming intimate with its every contour and camber.
And you know the really annoying part? These are advantages the Sydney clubs already enjoy. The fact they have to do some travel throughout the year serves to equalise it to a degree.
Long term, the game cannot survive being split into the ‘stay at home’ conference and the ‘spend your season on the road’ conference. It would decimate the clubs in the latter system.
As for the short term, if we have to split the NRL in two for the sake of making season 2020 viable, then so be it.
But if you want to measure the equity of a two-tier system, put your club in the lesser tier. Then decide whether it’s the fairest way to proceed.