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The NRL's expansion dilemma: How a 20-team competition can be achieved in less than 10 years

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Roar Rookie
17th May, 2024
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As well as the action from Magic Round, there has been a lot of talk recently about expansion, such as where the NRL establishes the new teams and what is the strategy.

There are two options in my opinion for NRL expansion. The competition either goes with a more conservative approach, building and strengthening existing rugby league markets while entering into a new, somewhat old market, by way of Western Australia.

Or, the competition takes an aggressive approach and ventures into two new markets and takes a risk with Papua New Guinea.

If we take a look at both these options we can understand how the competition may look in five to ten years, either way you look at it, we would all appreciate a decision and a plan to be handed down by Peter V’landys at the end of June 2024.

Some things to keep in mind, the NRL is definitely going to be an 18-team competition, this is a foregone conclusion.

As for the 20-team competition that PVL has talked about, I am not sure if that will happen for certain.

I for one am a fan of the larger competition, I am also an advocate for divisions and conferences, and this does come into my way of thinking for expansion.

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For me this is the way forward, however, that is also another separate topic we won’t go into here.

The conservative approach

There are currently three markets showing their hand for entry into the NRL: Brisbane, Perth and the South Island of NZ have all officially put forward their interest or launched bids for admittance into the NRL.

Just to note, these are markets with bids that will be self-sufficient and will not rely on government handouts.

I know that PNG is very much interested in establishing a team, however, due to the lack of corporate structure and financial stability I would not consider them to be a safe or conservative option.

Brisbane

The 107-year-old Queensland cup club, Brisbane (Easts) Tigers have officially launched a bid for promotion into the NRL.

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The Tigers have an existing Leagues club, corporate structure, junior pathways and training facilities.

The club would need to address the issue of a name however, we already have a Tigers. My preference would be Brisbane Bengals (Bengal Tiger) with a White Tiger mascot in place of their original Orange and Black Tiger.

With the success of the Dolphins entering the competition last year, it shows the appetite for rugby league in QLD is stronger than ever.

A fifth Queensland team would certainly work.

South Island NZ

There are currently two official bids from the South Island, South Island Kea and the yet unnamed second bid headed up by Tony Kidd.

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With the completion of the 30,000-seat fully enclosed Te Kaha stadium in Christchurch, due for completion by mid-2026, it is a very real possibility one of these bids becomes a reality.

The unnamed bid is an intriguing one for me, what is the secret here, is there a possible merger or relocation on the cards?

Could we see the NZ Bears emerge in Christchurch? The Bears colours would certainly look familiar to residents of the Canterbury region, Canterbury Crusaders anyone?

Perth

We have only heard from the Western Australian government in recent times, publicly stating they want an NRL side, there is no official bid so to speak, or none that I am aware of anyway.

I know in the past there have been talks of the re-emergence of the Perth Reds or another option was the Perth Pirates.

I would love to see a new fresh start for Perth in the NRL, the Perth Pirates has a nice ring to it for me.

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Recycling the Reds could work although some fans may see this as the rehashing of a failed era of Rugby League in the West.

The Aggressive approach

Should the NRL take the matter of establishing franchises into its own hands? From the outside, this certainly seems to be the case with PNG.

Between the Australian Rugby League Commission, the NRL and the Australian Government, this decision seems to be made for PNG; “Here you are having an NRL franchise and I don’t want to hear any more about it”.

Papua New Guinea

A well-documented Rugby League-made nation, they love the sport no question. The funding package offered by the Australian Government is almost irresistible, somewhere in the vicinity of $600 million over ten years.

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The NRL wouldn’t need to contribute any funds other than the annual club grant, which would certainly allow huge investment in pathways, training facilities and other associated tasks.

There are many valid negatives here though. Crime is an issue in PNG, and the country can be unstable at times.

Also, the extreme humidity in summer would be very difficult for pre-season training and the start of the year matches played at home.

The temps and humidity sore in Townsville and Port Moresby is over 1,000 kilometres North of Cowboy country.

Adelaide

To my knowledge there is no bid or desire for an NRL team in Adelaide, but hey, since we are giving away franchises why not give one to the South Australian capital?

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Another sports-mad city with existing teams from other major codes already established, why could we not make an NRL team work? This is a perfect case for the Bears to relocate.

A market like Adelaide in my opinion would need an established brand, one with history, financial security in the form of assets and a corporate structure.

Adelaide could be the opportunity the Bears have been longing for since their demise from the top grade back in 1999.

Perth

Whichever approach the NRL takes, a team from the West is a no-brainer. There needs to be a Perth team running around and I would make this my first choice.

Conclusion…

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If it was my decision and I was PVL for a day I would do the following, the aggressive approach.

Perth Pirates – Entry in 2028

The start of the next broadcast deal makes a great deal of sense to bring in the next expansion side, it allows the new team time to recruit and build the internal structure they will need.

This should be an all-out assault on the Western Australian market, no holding back.

I would be ensuring, at any cost, that Wayne Bennett is the coach of this budding franchise. The Super Coach has shown what he can do with a brand new team on multiple occasions now, look at what he did with the Broncos in 1988 and more recently the Dolphins.

Another major scalp would be the recruitment of Phil (Gus) Gould as General Manager of football. I would be ensuring Gus was focused on pathways and junior development in WA.

Again we have another proven contender here, look at the pathway setup at the Panthers and now he is mirroring that at the Bulldogs.

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Adelaide Bears – Entry in 2033

I think the majority of Rugby League fans would love to see the Bears back in the competition. Not only because of their history but their tenacious spirit.

The Bears have been trying to obtain re-admittance to the top tier basically since they were unceremoniously axed. Why would you not want to have an outfit with this sort of fighting spirit somewhere in the competition?

The ties to Sydney are crucial also, since we are talking about one of the smallest Rugby League markets by participation, you really need to attract talent and have links with junior pathways.

I believe playing two games per year at North Sydney Oval would be acceptable while they build a solid fan base in SA.

Bears stalwart Mark Soden in 1994. (Photo by Getty Images)

South Pacific Hunters – 2033

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Look I am not sold on the location of this team, PNG poses so many risks in my eyes. A common sense approach would be to establish a South Pacific team in Christchurch, however, this would most likely see the government funding offer disappear.

So I do believe it will be PNG that gains entry via a South Pacific model embracing pathways from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and The Cook Islands.

I would not want to rush this, therefore they would be the last on my list to gain entry. Along with the Adelaide Bears, I would be looking at the start of the 2033 broadcast cycle.

Since adding teams 19 and 20 would trigger another entire match per round it would make sense to time it in this way.

Also allowing the PNG side to establish much of the infrastructure required to house an NRL side. If the powers that be were to listen, I would say base this team in Christchurch, however, that is a long shot.

There you have it, my thoughts on the expansion of the NRL by 2033.

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A 20-team competition with first-grade, top-tier teams based in more geographical regions than any other sport in this country.

The key for these new and also the existing clubs, to make it all work and grow the game, is to establish academies and offer more than just a sporting career. That is also a story for another day.

Here’s my final list:

South Pacific Hunters
North Queensland Cowboys
Redcliffe Dolphins
Brisbane Broncos
Gold Coast Titans
Newcastle Knights
Penrith Panthers
Parramatta Eels
Wests Tigers
Canterbury Bulldogs
Manly Sea Eagles
Sydney Roosters
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Cronulla Sharks
St George Dragons
Canberra Raiders
Melbourne Storm
Adelaide Bears
Perth Pirates
New Zealand Warriors

I would love to hear all the readers’ thoughts in the comments on this, and what you all would do if you had the chance to make this decision.

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