In this final edition of Super League Revisited, the last ‘what ifs’ concern the NRL’s 14-team rationalisation.
What if no teams faced the chopping block?
The Super League mantra of less teams was not intractable. It existed for three reasons.
The first was for a consistent argument to be formed regarding the Broncos wanting exclusivity in Brisbane. However, if the Crushers had been given time to develop, the rivalry atmosphere may well have advanced the Broncos’ causes.
The second reason was to ensure the standard of games. But less teams does not lead to talent and quality across the board. Even State of Origin delivers stinkers.
The third reason was the simple fact that Super League could not attract enough players to maintain the same amount of clubs and was compelled to turn that shortcoming into a mission statement. If Foxtel could have had up to ten games per weekend to fill their schedule from the beginning, the ‘less is more’ idea may have drifted away.
What if the Magpies didn’t make it to 1999?
As already mentioned in the seasons edition of this series, the Rams and Chargers were kicked out at the end of 1998. Adelaide’s removal by News Ltd. was justifiable, given their small player, supporter and sponsor base, along with them being the bottom ranked on-field among the former Super League clubs.
Good Coast’s exclusion made less sense. Sure, they were struggling, as always, but they made the finals only one year beforehand. Plus, they occupied a growth area ripe with potential. And, unlike Western Suburbs, they didn’t finish last.
One of the key goals of the shedding of teams was to remove the concentration of clubs in Sydney. At that point, only St George had changed their status, with all of the teams to face the axe being regional or interstate.
The NRL may have feared a lawsuit, given that the Magpies took the NSWRL to court to avoid being cut at the end of 1983, but Gold Coast may have sued too.
The most pressing concern was likely the loss of representation in Campbelltown. A joint venture would have lessened those concerns, and rather than Balmain, Penrith would have been an appropriate partner.
Ultimately, the Panthers barely survived the 14-team cut, and their precarious position must’ve been known even a year in advance.
The Western Sydney Panthers would have had strong leagues-club support, a junior base the envy of most other teams, an immediate cash injection from the NRL, and the same salary cap exception as St George Illawarra, potentially making them a premiership contender.
Even their uniform sorts itself out.
The Chargers may well have ultimately only survived for one more season, but their presence deserved to be judged on more fairly applied merits.
What if South Sydney survived the cut?
If Penrith had missed out instead of the Rabbitohs, a close call discussed in part one of this series, do the Panthers powerlessly enter a post-deadline Parramatta Panthers joint venture?
Do their fans match on the streets while the club takes the NRL to court?
And do the comparatively impoverished Rabbitohs, minus the groundswell of support and the wake-up call regarding their status, eventually die?
These questions are irrelevant, largely because Penrith were never going to miss out. That’s not a conspiratorial claim, rather a reflection of the winners from the Super League war.
The 1995 ARL season saw eight clubs rebel to Super League, with only the Reds not making it to the 2000 season. Of the 12 sides to stay loyal, only the Knights, Eels, and Roosters survived in their original forms.
Why was that the case? One reason would have been the more modern business practices pushed by the rebel competition, which were particularly beneficial to sides without competition in their own markets.
Another was that News Ltd had a bigger war chest than the establishment could muster, with ARL clubs floundering even as their players found their salaries increasing exponentially.
The ARL didn’t help their club’s causes even in peacetime, allowing a sponsorship payment deadline from parties including Channel Nine and Optus to lapse, giving those parties leverage; if the clubs wanted their money, to the tune of $1.5 million each, they had to agree to a non-objection agreement to the rationalisation to 14 teams.
Super League may not have won the war, but the ARL lost it more.
What if the Warriors were expelled for going broke?
In 2000, the Auckland Warriors became insolvent, less than 12 months after using their financial viability to be admitted into a competition that some applicants missed out on joining.
At the time, the NRL was in an ongoing legal battle with South Sydney, who were fighting for their reinstatement, a battle the governing body likely wanted to lose.
The stirring of support for the Rabbitohs combined with the disillusionment of large swathes of fans, meant that the main purpose of the continuation of court proceedings for the NRL was to have grounds for reinstating Souths that would not lead to other clubs suing in turn.
The Warriors going broke presented the NRL with an opportunity they did not take.
If the NRL had removed the Warriors due to insolvency, they could have made the argument that the next highest placed team according to the 14 team criteria, i.e.- Souths, could take their place. Court case over, no byes, goodwill restored on the west side of the ditch.
Entirely removing such a strategically important side would have been a bad decision but despite the Warriors being the only representative of a nation with a population over four million, they were still yet to make the finals and were not generating much revenue for the competition.
One year earlier, the axe falls in a heartbeat.
Thank you all for reading and commenting throughout this series.