In recent days, Peter V’landys, Andrew Abdo and others have floated a number of ideas about how they think the game could be made better.
These ideas include an 18-team competition with more teams (possibly) in Brisbane and New Zealand as well as splitting the competition into conferences and having an end of competition game similar to the NFL’s Super Bowl.
On the surface of it, these ideas seem innovative and maybe even attractive for some. In reality, they are a poorly thought-out series of thought bubbles, designed to add additional games to the already heavy schedule.
It does little or nothing to genuinely expand the game. In fact, I believe it harms more than helps the game.
The NRL has a number of issues it needs to address:
• The first grade competition
• The health and safety of players
• Expanding interest in the sport in Australia
• Expanding interest in the women’s game in Australia
• Expanding interest in the sport internationally through Test matches and tours
• Providing a quality product for sponsors and fans
These are not mutually exclusive and all need to work together successfully if the NRL is going to continue as a viable entity and rugby league is going to continue as a lead winter sport.
In order to achieve all these goals, the NRL needs to adopt a ‘less is more’ mantra when it comes to the NRL competition.
There’s no doubt expansion will occur and that’s a good thing as long as it’s managed well. If, as seems likely, the competition increases to 18 teams, the current thought is to have two nine-team conferences.
Why not have a single competition where each team plays the other once, with clubs alternating home field advantage, year in, year out? This has each club playing 17 minor round games per year, followed by the finals.
Critics would slam this idea, given clubs now play 24 games plus finals, but this is not about the clubs, it’s about the clubs, the players and the good of the game.
The current season started on the 11th of March and it finishes with the grand final on the 3rd of October. That is way too long and in the current era, far too inflexible.
The 2020 season showed just how important it is to be both flexible and adaptable and a 17-game season allows for that, just as a 20-round season did last year. In 2020, we still got what we wanted – eight teams in the finals and there was plenty of good football as well.
It is also likely to mean a reduction in injuries. This is because the time between seasons would be longer, giving more time for post-season player recovery and pre-season fitness.
The current long seasons also mean increased mental as well as physical fatigue. This would be reduced in a shorter season, keeping players fresher and (hopefully) reducing the impact of niggling injuries.
Assuming there are less injuries, it stands to reason there should be better quality matches because coaches would have more fit players to choose from.
The shorter the season, the more player intensity would have to lift because losing games would have a far greater impact than losing in a longer competition.
I would rather watch 17 quality rounds of football than watch 24 rounds where some teams might have to borrow players from either lower grades or other clubs just to make up the numbers.
I’m also guessing a 17-round competition would significantly reduce illegal play that might result in suspension.
It’s one thing to miss a game or two in a 25-round competition, but that starts to impact in a 17-round comp. If players are rubbed out for a month or more, that would hurt clubs significantly.
Earlier, I mentioned the increased flexibility 17 rounds would bring. That would allow the NRL to meet its role in promoting Test football.
In my 18-team competition, the season could start, as it does now, in March (or later depending if the NRL chose to start when it’s cooler), but because there are less minor rounds, would finish around the middle of August.
Again, that would probably horrify some, but there’s no hard and fast reason for holding the grand final in October.
More to the point, the time after the grand final could be used to play Test matches.
A huge gripe from fans now is that Tests, if they’re played, are played in November and even December. Players complain about the length of the season and it’s often the case that some will withdraw from real or imagined injuries or simply because they’re exhausted from such a long season.
If these games were played in August, September and early October, there should be a greater pool of quality players, mentally and physically fit to play Test football.
The women’s league competition could also run straight after the men’s grand final.
At present, it seems to almost be an afterthought, with the competition being overshadowed by the men. It’s time to have it as the main feature or linked to Test matches if the NRL wants to raise the profile of women’s rugby league with overseas audiences.
Another huge gripe from fans is the uneven nature of the draw, where it seems some teams have favourable draws against weaker clubs compared to others. In this scenario, everyone plays each other once – that’s it.
Broadcasters would not miss out because they’d still have a regular season to cover, albeit only 17 rounds.
They’d have nine games each round with the expanded competition and (hopefully) would have better quality games with more fit players on the ground, thanks to a reduced workload.
State Of Origin would remain unchanged, as would the finals and if the Test matches were advertised well, could be a huge financial windfall, both for the broadcasters and the NRL.
As an aside, a single, shorter competition would allow the NRL to rethink its current recruitment policies.
If there’s a longer off-season window for transfers and signings, surely that should reduce the need for clubs to be trying to poach players throughout the year?
One final advantage of this approach would occur when the NRL expanded past the proposed 18 teams. If there were 19 teams, there would be 18 rounds, 22 teams would mean 21 rounds, etc.
In a similar vein, if the competition were to shed teams, it would be a simple matter to reduce the number of rounds.
Those responsible for the management of the game in Australia need to think bigger than what might advantage clubs and broadcasters and focus on how the quality of the game, both locally and internationally, can be improved.
Adopting the ‘less is more’ approach would help ensure quality is being maintained while the game is expanding.