The real test of the Australian Rugby League commission is whether it has the backbone and foresight to take a whole of game approach to the Rugby League calender.
In 2014 the NRL season is set up based upon an old model.
When the NRL was first formed it had too many teams and wasn’t making enough money. The NRL club season was made as long as possible to inject money into clubs that were struggling to make ends meet. Nothing else mattered at the time, just keeping NRL teams alive was the main goal for the people putting together the Rugby League calender.
Over time things changed. The game started to add new events such at a longer international season, the NRL All Star game and eventually the NRL Nines. These were all good additions to the game but they were forced to fit around a very long club season.
The result of all of this is a very long season that feels disjointed and not quite right.
The Rugby League season started off with a bang in 2014 with the Auckland Nines. The NRL season itself then got under way and it was all going great. Then State Of Origin rolled around and things started to get messy. The great season we were having started to look thrown together as clubs played without stars, injuries took their toll, form started to fluctuate and Origin simply took over.
Even now you can see a post Origin hangover for some players and clubs. Its as though the season is working to get back on track.
I think we need to look at the direction the sport is heading towards. Where money can be made, how the game can best use its playing resources and whether the NRL club season needs to dominate the way it once did.
In my opinion the perfect NRL club season would run for 20 rounds. This would ease the workload on players and make each game a little more important than it currently is. Right now, plenty of teams can have a bad month of football here and there and still be right on track to make the finals. Look no further than the New Zealand Warriors for an example of this.
If we are going to kick the NRL season off with the NRL Nines, then the World Cup Challenge, we can then lead into the NRL season knowing that players are not going to be set for a long, taxing season.
Come State Of Origin time I would like to keep the current set up where we have State Of Origin games played on a Wednesday night. The change I would make would be in the weekend leading into State Of Origin. I would make those weekends representative weekends.
That would mean you keep Wednesday night State Of Origin, something broadcasters pay a premium for. You also don’t have weakened NRL teams playing. That will make for a better club season at the end of the day.
The likes of New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, PNG, the Cook Islands and the United States would loved a chance to take the spotlight three times a season by playing international games against one another in the weekend before State Of Origin is played.
New Zealand would get so much out of playing more test football. They would finally have the chance to play more tests on home soil as well.
With more international footy being played you would also see players more willing to commit to playing for international teams rather than looking to be drafted into Australian rep teams.
By giving international teams more games, more exposure and more opportunity to improve, you are investing in the future of the Australian game. A stronger Kiwi’s team will make for bigger crowds and interest in the Trans Tasman test. If Australia can one day play stronger pacific nations, even better.
Once we are through the rep season the NRL club season would be a lot more settled. The run into the NRL finals series would be a lot more focused and club wouldn’t be rebuilding their seasons as we are seeing right now.
I don’t think we will see too many changes to the end of season international calender, but we wouldn’t really need to see much change if we allowed international teams to get more of a spotlight during the middle of the season.
Now, all of the above sounds great, but at the end of the day it all comes down to money. The powers that be need to be able to convince broadcasters that they will have the same high rating content that they do right now. You would also have to convince clubs that the hit they take on playing less games would be made up for through the next broadcasting agreement and through bigger crowds coming through the gates to see a better quality club season.
That will all be a very hard sell, but it should be something the ARL is looking towards for the good of the game.
Right now the Rugby League calender is far from idea. We see too many club games that don’t really mean all that much. We see too much disruption from the State Of Origin series and not enough opportunity to see international Rugby League featured.
Fixing all of that has to be on the agenda of the Australian Rugby League commission. As I said earlier, it will take foresight and a lot of backbone to pull off changes to the Rugby League season, but will commitment from the games shareholders I believe Rugby League can put together a far better season structure than it has in place right now.