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Would three NRL conferences be better than two?

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3rd May, 2021

The talk last week was about NRL expansion and a potential conference system.

This may not suit clubs like the Canberra Raiders or Newcastle Knights.

In a two-conference system, with relatively strong membership bases, both the Raiders and Knights membership could be impacted during the regular season if they were placed in an expanded conference playing against non-Sydney teams.

Likewise, their travel requirements would increase, making it tougher on players and staff.

Expanding an 18th team into New Zealand is also not without problems.

With attendance driven by derbies, the maximum number of New Zealand derbies may be restricted to just two games per year. There may yet be a smarter way to go.


The concept I proposed last week would condense the existing NRL heavyweight competition so it wraps up mid-year.

This opens the door for end of year excitement with the Polynesian heavyweight belt (heavyweight Polynesian players drafted from NRL teams), and the NRL Super Bowl (average team height cap and a maximum of one Polynesian player per team).

However, if the vision remains to have a conference system with a heavyweight division, I would propose not a two-conference system, but a three-conference system, with a heavy focus on grouping teams together based on existing and future rivalries.

Here, the three conferences would comprise six teams each.

Acting NRL Chief Executive Officer Andrew Abdo

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

These teams would face each other twice at the start of the season, followed by one game each against all other teams in the competition.

Some additional derbies might be featured in the final rounds to hit a targeted number of rounds.

At the end of the season, there would be two separate championships, each with a top-five finals system:


•Sydney Championship: Tigers, Panthers, Manly, Sharks, Eels, Dragons, Rabbitohs, Roosters, Sharks, Bulldogs.
•Greater NRL Championship: Broncos, Titans, Dolphins, Jets, Storm, Cowboys, Raiders, Knights and Warriors.

The winner of the Sydney Championship and Greater NRL Championship would then face off in the NRL Super Bowl.

Now to the three conferences:

NSW-ACT Conference (six teams)
For fairness, all teams would rotate over a seven-year cycle from this conference and into the NZ-NSW conference.

1. South Sydney Rabbitohs
2. Sydney Roosters
3. St George Illawarra Dragons
4. Parramatta Eels
5. Penrith Panthers
6. Canberra Raiders
7. Wests Tigers

NZ-NSW Conference
This conference creates a critical core of four teams competing in New Zealand. Four teams enables enough derbies for the game to take root across NZ.

To complement the Auckland Warriors, I’ve gone with Canterbury, Cronulla and Manly to represent Canterbury (Bulldogs), Wellington (Cronulla) and Hamilton-Waikato (Manly).


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Why these teams? I will get to that in a moment.

First things first though, it is important that the draw for the entire season delivers the Bulldogs, Sea Eagles and Sharks supporters the same number of home games as other Sydney-based teams.

With that said…

Why Cronulla and Manly?


These sides really struggle to get over 13,000 members at the best of times. And they are not about to merge any time soon.

For that reason, their monikers would be changed to Cronulla-Wellington Sharks playing in yellow and black in New Zealand, and Manly-Waikato Sea Eagles. Further, the Sharks could consider the yellow and black to be a permanent away jersey.

Why Canterbury?

Canterbury in Sydney shares the same name as Canterbury in NZ. The Bulldogs would play in Canterbury’s traditional red and black colours when playing across the ditch.

And like the Sharks, the Bulldogs could consider red and black to be a permanent away jersey.

With Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington and Waikato, New Zealand would feature eight derbies in Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, and Hamilton, as well as two additional Auckland Warriors home games.

I’ll readily admit I’m not a supporter of the Sharks, Sea Eagles or Bulldogs.

William Kennedy of the Sharks passes the ball

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)


But in slightly tweaking their moniker and playing strip they would benefit by way of a new supporter base, the same number of home games, and greater player depth.

It would be a good carrot for the Bulldogs, Manly and the Sharks to have first pick at players from the Wellington, Canterbury, and Waikato player catchment zones.

The six NZ-NSW conference teams
1. Auckland Warriors
2. Canterbury Bulldogs
3. Cronulla-Wellington Sharks
4. Manly-Waikato Sea Eagles
5. Newcastle Knights – the Knights have been included in this conference as they have a strong existing rivalry with Manly and also receive good crowd attendance against Canterbury and Cronulla.
6. One NSW-ACT Conference team each year to play in the New Zealand Conference.

QLD Conference
Similar to my last article, a nucleus of six teams is retained in Queensland.

For this to work, the league would expand to include the Redcliffe Dolphins and Western Jets. The East Tigers would be represented through the Storm dropping the Melbourne moniker.

1. Brisbane Broncos
2. Gold Coast Titans
3. Redcliffe Dolphins (expansion team)
4. Western Jets: expansion team – Ipswich Jets-Brisbane Bombers, also representing Western Australia and Northern Territory. Several games per year in Perth and Darwin
5. Storm – the ‘Melbourne’ moniker changed to represent both southern Brisbane, Victoria, SA and Tasmania. Another name might be the Southern Storm. The Storm would benefit by way of greater support and fan-base in Queensland, as well as forming a tighter alliance with East Tigers.
6. North Queensland Cowboys

Again, teams would play each other in the existing conference twice, then play against all other teams in the competition.

If additional rounds are required, some more derbies could potentially provide the necessary fixtures.

David Fifita

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Both the Sydney and Greater NRL Championships would feature a top-five system.

The two champions would then come together in the NRL Super Bowl.

Now to be fair, a two-conference system could work, provided Canberra and the Knights are forever linked to the Sydney nine.

Then two teams each year from Sydney would rotate out of the Sydney Conference and into the Expanded Conference.

I will now try to outline how a two conference system might work using same logic as above.

Sydney Championship
Tigers, Panthers, Manly, Sharks, Eels, Dragons, Rabbitohs, Roosters, Sharks, Bulldogs, Raiders, Knights (two teams rotated out each year).

Greater NRL Championship
Brisbane Broncos
Redcliffe Dolphins
Western Jets
North QLD Cowboys
Auckland Warriors
Melbourne-Wellington Storm
Gold Coast-Waikato Titans
Two rotational teams from Sydney Championship


The Canterbury Bulldogs would also still play the New Zealand representative teams in New Zealand whenever the chance presents.