There are two seemingly unrelated events occurring on the sidelines of the National Rugby League at the moment.
The NRLC is soon due to announce the successful bidder for a new Brisbane-based club to enter the NRL from 2023.
At the same time, calls are coming for a major overhaul of the Wests Tigers amalgamation, a grouping that, despite tasting early premiership success, has largely failed to solidify its new identify, and seems to have difficulty finding a true home, uniting their administration and effectively developing and drawing one of the largest potential nurseries available to any NRL club.
But could these seemingly two unrelated challenges provide a mutually agreeable solution?
Some argue the merger have never worked. Two clubs with very different core values, different bases and different cultures, separated geographically and lead by different administrations.
At the time of the merger, the Western Suburbs Magpies had already taken steps to move further west, establishing their home ground at Campbelltown and beginning to tap into this new market. The merger pulled them back in to the inner west, reduced the number of games played at Campbelltown Stadium and stymied the ability of the new club to fully embrace its move to the major centres of Liverpool and Campbelltown.
Splitting the merged club back and giving the South West Sydney Magpies clear running to establish themselves in this area could reignite the fortunes of this part of the club and let it fully focus on growing the game in its chosen region and fight off the advances made by soccer and AFL in these areas.
Wests would be back in their traditional garb, with a similar outer suburban outlook to its original character.
So, what happens to the Tigers?
The key is in the name, though it might not be clear to anyone who has limited knowledge of rugby league north of the Tweed. There are three clubs currently bidding on for the new NRL licence in Brisbane. The Brisbane Jets (a merger of the original Bombers proposal and the Ipswich Jets), the Redcliffe Dolphins and the Brisbane Firehawks.
The Dolphins appear to have the front running. They have already successfully hosted a couple of NRL games at their boutique stadium in Redcliffe and are hosting the Warriors while that side is facing exile on the wrong side of the Tasman.
However, the Brisbane Firehawks could provide a solution to the Tigers problem.
I like the Firehawks name, it is something that is both catchy and unique Australian, referring to Australian raptor species that seemingly spread bushfires further by picking up burning sticks and depositing them in new areas. However, the club behind the Firehawks brand is the Easts Tigers.
If the Easts Tigers group, which has an estimated $80 million worth of assets and $25 million in cash, was to successfully win the bid then it could potentially compete under its own name as the Brisbane Tigers. It would preserve one of the oldest names in the NRL, in a similar way that the Brisbane Lions and Sydney Swans carry on the original names of the Fitzroy and South Melbourne clubs.
Easts Tigers could also bring in or potentially buy out (the second option may work better) the Balmain Leagues Club redevelopment and Leichhardt Juniors – maintaining a real presence in both cities and states and drawing on two long Tigers traditions while developing a new presence for the NRL on the south side of Brisbane, initially playing their games at Suncorp, but perhaps down the track shifting their games to the Gabba after its 2032 Olympic Games redevelopment.
This would set up a north-south divide in Brisbane – something, as a former Brisbane resident, I think would have a real tribal appeal. One or two home games a year could also be played at Leichhardt Oval to further cement the links to the Sydney-based Tigers fraternity.
If the Tigers-Firehawks bid is not successful (as I suspect might be the case), another option remains. Keep the Wests Tigers name but invite interested parties in WA to bid for the licence and base the team out of Perth (again with an opportunity to maintain their presence in Sydney and play the odd game in Leichhardt).
The Magpies would still be freed up from the Wests Tigers merger, but, in this case, to form the Macarthur Magpies but still maintaining all the advantages discussed above – back in black and white, back out west and developing rugby league in the south-west corridor and in an area that will be, no doubt, boosted by the development of Sydney’s second airport (or the Western Sydney Aeorotropolis as Liverpool City Council call it).
Grow the game into new areas, keep and actually returning some of the old traditions while unshackling two traditional clubs from an ineffective and unproductive partnership. It’s an idea I think has a lot of merit.