20/04/2022 - 13:34

League tackles growth beyond grass roots

20/04/2022 - 13:34

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With the Redcliffe Dolphins to enter the NRL next year, WA has a compelling case to make for receiving the league’s 18th licence.

League tackles growth beyond grass roots
WA’s state women’s rugby league team won the national women’s championship in May 2021.

Conventional wisdom dictates that opposing football codes either side of the so-called ‘Barassi Line’, an imaginary division that pits the rugby league-playing states of Queensland and New South Wales against the Australian rules-playing majority, cannot co-exist.

Obviously, the expansion of Aussie rules into the north-eastern states has given lie to the term in a practical sense, after it was coined by historian Ian Turner in 1978.

Apart from Melbourne Storm, though, the same cannot be said of states to the south-west of the Barassi Line.

Aside from a period in the mid-1990s, during which the Western Reds and the Adelaide Rams competed in the rebel Super League, rugby league has mostly retained its cultural ties to its foundation states, with all but one team drawn from Queensland, NSW or New Zealand.

As opposed to the bullish approach taken by the Australian Football League, the National Rugby League has left Western Australia firmly on the sidelines, overlooking several high-profile bids for a licence as it has chased what it deems to be more sustainable broadcasting revenue for clubs based in the eastern states.

WA, in turn, has increasingly been viewed as too enamoured with the AFL for an NRL team to work.

It’s a reality of which John Sackson, chief executive of NRL WA, is acutely aware.

“There’s no question that Western Australia is an AFL state, but I’m a firm believer that all codes can coexist,” Mr Sackson told Business News.

He’s not wrong. While media coverage, corporate dollars and grassroots participation in WA overwhelmingly favour Australian rules football, basketball and soccer have made a significant dent in the market with the creation of Perth Wildcats (1982) and Perth Glory (1995).

And while WA does not, at present, field a team in the NRL, the state has hosted several premiership games in recent years at HBF Park and inked deals with the likes of the Sydney Roosters to play home games in Perth.

In a few months’ time, the state will host two State of Origin games, the league’s premier event, in what is expected to generate about $15 million in economic activity for WA.

The last time Perth hosted a State of Origin game, in 2019 at Optus Stadium, close to 60,000 spectators turned out for the match, rivalling turnout for games held in Brisbane and Sydney as well as nearly matching attendance for the 2021 AFL Grand Final.

That WA could find the commercial backing to sustain its own NRL team is borne out by the abundance of businesses, including Cash Converters and DDH1 Drilling, that have already lined up as corporate partners.

“When you look at the bigger picture, the two biggest football codes [in Australia], by far, are the NRL and the AFL,” Mr Sackson said.

“That’s reinforced by TV ratings and crowd attendance. “I believe there is more than enough corporate interest and potential corporate support for a sustainable franchise in Western Australia.”

Cash Converters executive chair Peter Cumins is among the most prominent business supporters of WA’s push for entry into the NRL.

A supporter of rugby league owing to his UK parents, Mr Cumins played hundreds of games with the Fremantle Roosters in his youth and, having played a central role in the Western Reds’ brief existence, sees only upsides to expanding the NRL to WA.

He admits to more than a few false starts for a potential bid in the past decade but insists that, if the league is interested, there will be more than enough resources to make it happen if given sufficient lead-in time.

“We can rally the troops in a very quick time to put that together and to make it happen,” Mr Cumins said.

For the uninitiated, the argument in favour of an NRL team in WA can seem flimsy.

Locally, though, rugby league’s state-wide competition is coming up on its 75th anniversary, with Fremantle, South Perth, and Kalamunda having fielded teams in the state competition since the late 1940s.

Since the mid-2010s, the league has doubled in size with the addition of five teams in the state’s South West region as well as clubs in Alkimos, Kwinana and Ellenbrook.

And while WA may be absent an elite team, it’s produced no shortage of top-tier talent in recent years, including two prominent Paramatta Eels players in Waqa Blake and Kennedy Cherrington.

WA did field a national team, most notably in the mid-1990s during the breakaway Super League experiment, with the Western Reds attracting strong turnout at home games, which were played at the WACA Ground.

As a result of the Super League war of 1997, however, the Reds lasted only a few years before being booted from the competition alongside seven other teams.

That the team had to exit the league is generally viewed as a given, due to the enormous costs associated with travel, excessive player salaries and the overwhelming advantage the AFL had in drumming up attendance and sponsorships.

Others, including former Western Reds chair Laurie Puddy, have publicly rejected this view, arguing in an interview published by News Corporation in October that the blame for the club’s failure was entirely the fault of the Super League war itself.

Since that initial contraction from 22 to 14 teams in 1998, the league has created two more clubs, with Wests Tigers (an amalgamation of the Balmain Tigers and Western Suburbs Magpies) and the Gold Coast Titans.

WA has had little success in its bid for a licence, however, and was delivered yet another blow late last year with news that Redcliffe, north-east of Brisbane, would become the 17th team (the Dolphins).

It wasn’t a surprise, given the NRL had stated a preference for another Queensland-based team, but was nevertheless another setback for the West Coast Pirates’ bid, which has been backed by Cash Converters and Mr Cumins.

That bid gained serious momentum in the early 2010s but fizzled out by the time Peter V’landys succeeded Peter Beattie as the league’s chair in 2019.

At least two individuals have sought a WA team licence in the interim, with Mr Puddy as well as Perth Glory owner Tony Sage having at various times taken concrete steps towards making a bid.

As for whether any of these clubs will become the NRL’s 18th team is another question, given Peter V’landys, chief executive of Racing New South Wales and the NRL’s national chair, has previously expressed strong reservations about expanding the code into traditionally AFL states.

It’s an argument that seems to rankle Mr Cummins, who rejects the assertion that WA’s affinity for the AFL and its time zone make the proposition a nonstarter.

“The most successful team in the NRL in the last 20 years has been the Melbourne Storm [which is based in] a rusted-on AFL state,” Mr Cumins said.

“It’s all about the quality of the organisation and the quality of the people that makes clubs and teams successful, it’s not their location.

“Western Australia has a national team in every sport, whether it be netball, cricket, rugby union, football, baseball, you name it.

“They can all compete successfully and have done in all of those sports.” Mr Sackson holds no hard feelings over Perth being passed over for the 17th NRL licence, having always believed South-East Queensland would be home to the next club due to how it aligns with the league’s stated strategic direction.

As he readily concedes, facilitating and administering the game at a state level is where most of his time and efforts are focused, and he prefaces his support for a WA-based club on the proviso it can demonstrate added value for the game and guaranteed, long-term commercial viability.

Still, there’s no denying the impact a WA-based team would have on grassroots rugby league in this state.

“We’re producing a lot of talented young boys and girls [and] we can’t offer them an elite pathway without them leaving their home state,” Mr Sackson said.

“Having that team right here on their doorstep … would be powerful in terms of inspiring more boys and girls to play rugby league, particularly the ones who have professional aspirations.”

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