There has been an undeniable gap emerging between the top four to six teams and the rest of the competition over the last few years, resulting in many blow-out scores.
This has been exacerbated by the expansion of the six-again rules and the increased pace of the game.
Many games now are foregone conclusions before the game even starts and there are very few true upsets from the underdogs.
Fans, and probably players too, need the hope that their team is a chance of winning each game played. When players continually lose, they learn to lose and it is hard to turn around. Fans may become disillusioned with the sport altogether when their team is not competitive for long periods of time.
Ultimately, this will limit the NRL’s bottom line directly through gate takings. Long-term, it can affect future broadcast deals.
The ideas of adding additional teams or a rookie draft have been floated, but both would a cost.
However, I think a mechanism that currently exists and has been undervalued by the NRL looms as the simplest and most cost-effective solution – the draw.
There are three types of games the NRL should target to ensure the greatest engagement by audiences:
1. Top-quality games between the best teams in the comp.
2. Local derbies and traditional rivalries that evoke history and passion and provide competitive games irrespective of form lines.
3. Close games, regardless of quality.
Fairness should also come into it, but short of a 32-game season where every team plays each other twice, true fairness is not practical. Ultimately, fairness should be boiled down to opportunities to make play-offs.
I am sure the NRL does endeavour to do this. However, with teams changing year to year, even using the previous year’s form cannot be relied on to fully balance a draw or ensure the top teams play each other twice.
I am proposing a more complex draw that will boost tribalism and local rivalries, use current form to maximise games between the best teams and give the less competitive teams more games where they can be competitive.
This is how it could work in 2023 with the addition of the Dolphins team. If another team is introduced in the future, this will still work.
Arrange the competition of 17 teams into three conferences of six, six and five. These conferences will be tribally or geographically chosen to enhance rivalries and reduce travel costs where possible.
The North-South Conference will consist of the following six teams: Broncos, Dolphins, Titans, Cowboys, Storm and Warriors. It will enhance the Queensland rivalries and the trans-Tasman rivalry of the Storm and Warriors.
The South-Western Conference will consist of the following five teams: Panthers, Eels, Tigers, Bulldogs and Raiders. There is a provision to add an 18th team to this conference. This will enhance the Western Sydney rivalries while Canberra also has history with Parramatta and the Bulldogs from their golden years.
The Eastern Conference will consist of the following six teams: Roosters, Rabbitohs, Dragons, Sea Eagles, Sharks and the Knights. This will draw on historical rivalries between the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Dragons and the ‘Battle of Beaches’ between the Sea Eagles and the Sharks. The Roosters, Souths, Manly and the Knights have representation on the Central Coast as well.
The conferences could change year to year if required but it would be better if they stayed to deepen rivalries.
The draw is divided into three phases before the final’s series, with wins becoming more valuable as the season goes on.
Phase 1 of the draw will start with each team playing the teams that are not in their conference over 12 rounds. Wins will be worth two points. The teams in conferences with six will each get one bye, while the conference with five teams will get byes in Phase 2. This phase ensures each team plays all other 16 teams at least once.
The teams then split into their tribal conferences. These games are worth more – three points – and will decide how teams progress into Phase 3 of the draw. There are five rounds in this stage with teams playing each of their tribal conference rivals.
At the conclusion of this phase, the top two ranked teams in each conference and the two highest-ranked of the remaining teams will form a top eight group for Phase 3, while others will form a bottom-nine group.
This phase will add greater weight to the local derbies and further enhance those rivalries, creating storylines for years to come. What would be better than condemning your bitter rival to a bottom group to fight for survival while your team continues into a guaranteed finals spot?
The top eight ranked teams will play each other for a second time in an eight-round competition with seven games and a bye each. Wins in Phase 3 are worth four points, twice the Phase 1 game value, and will decide the order of the top eight. The additional value is to reward wins against the best and ensure all teams fight for their spots rather than resting players. With double points, it will be harder to stay in the top five.
The bottom nine teams will also play seven games with one bye each. These games will also be worth four points each, which gives teams in stronger conferences a chance to catch up if they are good enough. This phase will consist of two or three games against all remaining members of each team’s conference (prioritising rivalries) and the final four or five games against teams randomly chosen from the other conferences.
At the conclusion of Phase 3, there will have been 25 rounds and each team will have played 23 games.
The top five teams from the top seven conferences will get a week off (or if the broadcasters get their way, they could play one more game against the remaining teams in the bottom group). The sixth to eighth-ranked teams will go into a sudden-death playoff for a finals position with the top three ranked teams of the bottom nine. For example, sixth will play third, seventh will play second and eighth will play first.
The winners will make up the remainder of the top eight for the finals.
The finals series will have the same format that exists currently where the top four will play-off with a second chance or a week off and the bottom four will play sudden death. The teams that have made it this far have had to work for it.
The benefit of this model are three-fold:
1. The eight best teams are almost guaranteed to play twice in the regular season.
2. Tribalism and rivalries are enhanced with a mini finals series midway through the season, giving even greater meaning to local derbies.
3. Poorer-performing teams are given greater chances of being competitive and a greater chance of making play-offs by playing fewer games against the best teams.
All these items should mean fans remain interested and invested longer throughout the season and improve the NRL product without outlaying too much additional coin or major rule changes.
So what do you think Roarers? Will this work?