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Opinion

Flying kites about a ‘Sydney conference’ makes the NRL look idiotic

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Expert
2nd May, 2021
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2383 Reads

It must be that time of the year – NRL conference talk is back!

I love conference play. I’m all for the NRL giving it a crack and I don’t know why more Aussie sports don’t do it given the opportunity.

It’s an interesting way to structure a competition and creates more chances for teams to make something of their season.

I also want to see the NRL expand, ideally to Perth as well as Brisbane.

So I was well and truly on board when reports started dropping that Australian Rugby League Commission Chair Peter V’landys and NRL Chief Executive Office Andrew Abdo have been spruiking the benefits of a two-conference, 18-team National Rugby League starting in 2025.

Then my heart sank, because the reported ‘Sydney conference’ and ‘National conference’ setup is just moronic.

For all the drooling in the reporting about conferences, it’s hardly innovative or cutting edge stuff. Competitions all over the world use conferences to sort out their teams and fixtures and have done for decades.

“But it’ll bring in massive crowds” say the boosters in the Daily Telegraph and connections of the Sydney clubs, based on absolutely zero evidence.


Public support for the idea from non-Sydney club fans, players and officials was surprisingly thin on the ground.

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South Sydney CEO Blake Solly loves the idea, quoted in the Daily Telegraph celebrating the possibility of “15 big Sydney games”.

“If we have the guarantee that we will play each other, home and away every year, then we could sit down with the NRL and create 15 big Sydney games each year, rather than the five or six we have right now,” Solly said.

Never mind 12 of those 15 games are already happening home and away this season, as pointed out by Jason Oliver of Rugby League Writers.

Marquee games being boosted in the press include Anzac Day, Easter Monday and Good Friday. These game already happen between Sydney clubs and get decent crowds. Switching to a Sydney-only conference will have no impact on that.

Crowds numbers like 30-40,000 for Sydney games were being thrown around with quite a deal of certainty. That means apparently average NRL crowds would almost triple when conferences arrive.

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According to the wonderful work of rugby league tables, since 1957 the highest reported average attendance for a season is 17,346 in 2012.

Since 2010, crowds have hovered around the 14-17,000 mark, occasionally dipping and occasionally rising but never really taking a massive leap or dive in one direction or another.

Repackaging games that have been played year after year isn’t going to double or triple this number, especially if these games are being played in redesigned suburban grounds that are all new 20-30,000 seat Bankwest Stadiums that won’t be able to hold these impending massive crowds.

The non-Sydney conference will apparently be home to two new NRL clubs, the second Brisbane side and depending on your wishes, a second team from New Zealand, or a team from Perth, or a team based in Papua New Guinea.

Never mind the logistical, financial and other issues faced by this conference. Never mind literally no one in New Zealand has shown any interest in a team.

V’landys is also on the record ruling out Perth because it’s AFL country and he’s not up for the fight. If you remember, he also doesn’t think NRL players can handle the flight out west.

The whole thing doesn’t stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. The fact people could be seriously considering this course of action is really worrying for NRL fans.

Peter V’landys

Peter V’landys (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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At best, this could be the beginning of what can be a pretty healthy discussion about the future of the league, at worst it’s yet another pointer to the retrograde mentality in NRL headquarters right now.

V’landys himself has said conferences are a 50/50 proposition and basically said things were barely advanced, which makes me wonder why he and Abdo were supposedly going around selling this to clubs.

So why was this brainfart set free? It makes the NRL leadership look even more narrow minded and insular. It proves there’s no innovative thinkers at Moore Park.

The Sydney conference was the source of much ridicule and bafflement around the Australian sporting landscape. If it wasn’t serious, Adbo or V’landys should have come out and kicked a chair out from under it as soon as they could… But they didn’t.

But for the whole week, talk about conferences pushed from the front and back pages any and all talk of concussions, game speed, injury rates, or the NRL’s apparent commitment to punishing high contact to send a message to the playing and coaching group.

How about that?