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Opinion

My club's not from Sydney: Sell me on NRL conferences

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3rd May, 2021
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With an NRL draw based on conferences seemingly back on the table, Phil Gould was asked who the losers would be under the system.

Gould, in his typically balanced and considered manner, responded, “I don’t care”.

“It’s in the best interests of the game,” he said on his Six Tackles with Gus podcast.

You forgot two pertinent words there Gus: in Sydney.

It’s in the best interests of the game in Sydney.

There has been staggering narrow-mindedness and Sydneysider self-interest in the conference discussion.

For those who haven’t got the memo, the proposal is for two conferences: Sydney and not-Sydney.

Sydney would consist of the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Eels, Bulldogs, Tigers, Panthers, Dragons, Sharks and Sea Eagles.

Not-Sydney would have the Broncos, Titans, Cowboys, Storm, Warriors, Knights and Raiders, as well as the proposed new Brisbane franchise, and a second New Zealand team that we just found out last week is on the cards.

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Tino Fa'asuamaleaui

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Each conference would play each other home and away, and face each team in the other conference once per year. The conference finals have been kicked about as taking various forms but what’s generally agreed is that the winners of each would then face off in a Super Bowl-style grand final.

And it’s going to be the best thing ever… for the Sydney clubs.

The Daily Telegraph framed the new system as a plan that “would reinvigorate rugby league in Sydney creating more derbies and a championship more valuable than the premiership itself”.

Before giving his “don’t care” about the rest of the competition outlook, Gould sang the conference system’s praises, because: “One of the real things about the Sydney teams is the ability to play against each other home and away every year – we don’t often get to play our Sydney rivals twice on that basis – I think that’s one area where the Sydney clubs would benefit greatly.”

Hoping to get a bit of balance, I took to the Sydney Morning Herald, where Michael Chammas wrote a lengthy piece about the system, which included a sub-heading entitled: “Who would be opposed to it?”

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His answer?

“The teams in Sydney would be thrilled. It will generate more interest, greater crowd numbers and potentially allow the NRL to sell Sydney conference games at a premium to broadcasters.”

That’s some Donald Trump shit, right there: who would be opposed to it? Nobody, it’s the greatest, everybody loves it.

To be fair to the guy, he expanded, but it wasn’t exactly a deep dive: “The teams in the outer-Sydney conference may not be as ecstatic. They will have to travel more and crowd figures may take a hit.”

May. Like, it could happen. But why would any club not jump at the opportunity to drastically increase their travel and therefore recovery, as well as slash the amount of games they get to play at home against the teams that historically draw the biggest crowds, if it means their rivals in Sydney get a sweet leg up?

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Look, there actually have been a number of people suggest there is a problem with the system, but they tend to only ever find one: no two Sydney teams would ever get to play each other in the grand final.

Cameron Smith of the Storm lifts the Premiership Trophy

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

In short, the conference is amazing because it gives Sydney teams far more opportunities to play one another – South Sydney CEO Blake Solly reckons it will “create 15 big Sydney games each year” – and its only drawback is that these same teams don’t get the chance to square off in the big dance at the end of the season.

(But that’s actually not such a big loss, because they’ll play each other in their conference grand final which, remember, will be “a championship more valuable than the premiership itself”.)

So the pros of the conference system are that it’s great for the Sydney clubs and the cons are that the grand final isn’t great for the Sydney clubs.

I have one question: what’s in it for the other nine clubs?

Shut up for one minute about how awesome it will be for Sydney and don’t dare talk about ‘the best interests of the game’.

Just tell me how the other half are going to benefit.

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As I alluded to, I only see downside: increased travel for most (three in particular but we’ll get to that) and far fewer games for all against the teams that draw the biggest crowds.

These are huge issues that need to be addressed because they will create a genuine two-speed competition – both on and off the field.

Regarding travel, Gus asked, “What’s the difference to [not-Sydney] travelling to each other or travelling to Sydney for a game?”

Addin Fonua-Blake

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Sure, things probably don’t change that much for the Kiwi teams, and the Queensland teams will have a similar load (albeit with an extra 4500 kilometres each year thanks to guaranteed trips to New Zealand).

But Newcastle and Canberra are lumped with a massive increase of time on the road. Melbourne will also end up doing a ton of extra travel over the course of a season as their frequent flights to Sydney instead become trips to New Zealand, Brisbane and Townsville.

Travel is a serious hinderance, as it has a big effect on sleep – which is critical in high performance – as well as recovery. And any time spent in transit is time better spent pretty much anywhere else, which is where the Sydney sides will be.

What’s more, as the not-Sydney sides’ travel ramps up, the Sydney sides do exponentially less. You reckon that’s not going to have an effect on both competitions and likely have a say come each year’s mooted Super Bowl?

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And that’s to say nothing of the difference in quality of life for players – Sydney are at home most of the year, while not-Sydney get the perks of seeing far less of their family and friends during the season.

Then we come to the issue of the clubs in each conference.

While most Novocastrian footy fans now support the red and blue, anyone old enough to remember and love rugby league before and through the ’80s probably still has a soft spot for the team they supported before the Knights came along in 1988.

Knights fans

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

I bet they harbour grudges that were born in that time too.

That’s going to be the case across all the not-Sydney markets, because the oldest club in that conference is the Raiders, established 1982, and the youngest will be one of two teams that don’t even exist yet.

Compare that to the Sydney conference, where the oldest clubs will be the Roosters, Souths and Wests Tigers(ish), which have been around since the comp’s 1908 foundation, while the youngest clubs are the 1966-established Sharks and Panthers.

The Sydney clubs talk about how well they’ll sell games against each other because the intra-city rivalry.

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Or maybe it’s because games against established, historic brands sell better than those against clubs that have existed less than two decades and have amassed zero premierships.

Sydney rivalries exist but there aren’t eight per team.

I mean, let’s revisit Solly’s pitch of “15 big Sydney games each year”.

It sounds great until you realise that it means just over ten per cent of the 144 games per season played between Sydney sides will be “big”. So his logic is that Sydney teams should play each other home and away on the basis that 90 per cent of games will be somewhere between crap and OK.

And crap is totally on the cards for plenty of Sydney games. In 2019 (the most recent legit year for crowds), while the very worst-attended games were between Sydney and not-Sydney teams, it should be noted that other games at the arse end of attendance included Penrith versus Manly (7981), Roosters versus Canterbury (8217), Canterbury versus Cronulla (8358), Manly versus St George Illawarra (8468), Manly versus Wests Tigers (8512), St George Illawarra versus Sydney Roosters (9087), and St George Illawarra versus Wests Tigers (9136).

NRL fan in empty stadium.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Reckon Sydney teams have history that has bred rivalry and tribalism? I call bullshit – especially on the Dragons versus Roosters game. You guys get the Anzac match every year and on the return leg you can’t even pull 10,000 people? Then you don’t get to argue that your clubs have some massive tradition that deserves two matches guaranteed per year.

There is nothing special about what happens between most Sydney clubs – at least, not in terms of drawing a crowd.

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Meanwhile, Newcastle’s best home crowd that year was against the Roosters (25,929), while Cronulla, Manly and Wests Tigers all drew over 21,000 in the Hunter. As for the Raiders, their biggest turn outs came against Manly (20,265) and the Roosters (19,530).

FYI, the regular-season Bunnies versus Chooks games – which bookended 2019 as games played in prime time for Rounds 1 and 25 – saw crowds of 24,527 and 20,093, which you’ll notice is fewer in total than showed up to watch the Tricolours against the Knights and Raiders. Food for thought there, Blake, that what should already be your “big” games get fewer people through the gates than Newcastle and Canberra manage.

And fair play, the Roosters were the reigning premiers, on their way to a second title in a row, but Manly were doing just fine (finished sixth), yet in Newcastle and Canberra the Sea Eagles pulled in a combined total of more than 42,000.

In Townsville, the season-high crowd of 18,415 came against a Red V that finished the year second last – and yes, that was more than turned out to watch the Cowboys face the Broncos.

Across the ditch, Canterbury were the biggest draw card for the year, attracting 18,795.

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Go around the grounds and while there are outliers – Brisbane did best against the Cowboys, and the Storm had their biggest crowd taking on the Warriors, although that comes with the caveat of it being the Anzac Day clash – Sydney clubs draw the most consistent numbers in the not-Sydney markets.

So how about you don’t get to host the games that people want to watch live just because you’re older than another club.

Rather, you earn the right to face off against clubs that draw numbers by, y’know, drawing numbers!

But Gus placates the not-Sydney teams with the advice that “if everyone gets their club where they need to be it’s still a very good competition and it’s still on free-to-air television and it’s still on pay television.”

Phil 'Gus' Gould

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Phil, do you notice that all those things are true of the Sydney market – including the need for certain clubs to get “where they need to be”? The difference is that outside of Sydney, fans of struggling clubs still turn up. And your proposal is to punish them for that?

Sydney clubs don’t attract better crowds against fellow Sydney teams – if anything, there’s an element of familiarity breeding contempt. But yeah, let’s let those guys all travel far less, and play each other home and away, at the expense of the not-Sydney teams becoming road warriors while simultaneously losing a stack of games that get their biggest gate takings.

It’ll be better for everyone.

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As for the idea the Queensland rivalries will be allowed to flourish under the conference system, well they do now. The NRL draw is a mess but whoever puts it together knows that local derbies do well, so the Queensland teams play home and away – that’s not going to stop.

Ultimately, I’m at least open to the idea of conferences, if for no other reason than it would clean up the aforementioned mess that is the NRL draw. But that’s nowhere near enough reason to instigate a system that gives half the competition a huge leg up while simultaneously dragging the other half down.

I have some ideas about how we bring parity to this system but I’ll hold them for another time.

Until then, I put this challenge to you: sell me on this NRL conference model if my club’s not from Sydney.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m saying that – at this point – no one has bothered to try.