Talk of ‘spreading thin’ in case of NRL expansion lacks foresight

Of all the reasons proffered against expanding the NRL from 16 teams to 18, the one that clanged against this sounding board was that there would not be enough players to go around. Not enough good ones, anyway, to maintain the “standard” of the NRL competition. The suggestion is that an influx of people would dilute the talent base and degrade the “product” by virtue of the new players being lesser than the incumbents.

We hear it during State of Origin when 34 of the game’s best players are taken out of the competition. There are new players, anonymous reserve graders, filling the breach. And with split rounds and focus on the big Origin show, people know they are being sold a lesser hound than the regular pure-breed.

And yet, to coin a phrase, the NRL competition, whether it is 16 teams or 18 or even 20, is what it is.

Consider this: a competition with 18 teams would mean an influx of 60 players, an increase of 8.5% on current playing stocks. According to the NRL in 2019 there were 170,000 registered rugby league players in Australia. Rugby league players also come from England, New Zealand, PNG, Fiji and the greater Polynesian diaspora. There is also an entire sport of rugby union to pick the eyes from. There are “rugby”-playing people in France, Wales, Japan, South Africa, Argentina, Canada and Kazakhstan.

Sixty new players cannot be found from that pool?

Wests Tigers found one on the weekend: Zac Cini, a 20-year-old from Minchinbury, halfway between Parramatta and Penrith. That’s not to say all who’d follow him would score a try on debut and earn instant cult status on the back of excitable mates and a flame-haired mullet. No, some would just make no mistakes. Others would get 20 minutes off the bench and never play again. And so on.

The point is, if you drew a circle on a map with a perimeter that touched Penrith and Parramatta, there would be one million people within that circle. And there would be one hundred Zac Cinis just in that catchment.

The NRL, like every competition in the world, can only ever seen through a lens of whoever is currently involved.

Take Semi Radrada, for example. The superstar Parramatta Eels winger left rugby league for France and is now irrelevant, at least in the conversation of rugby league. The best winger at the moment is Brian To’o. When a star leaves, they are replaced by another. The new player becomes the great one by virtue of being the best one in the game.

Talk of “spreading thin” lacks foresight. It lacks Phil Gould’s famous “five-year plan” that may have taken 10 but is now producing golden pay-dirt at Penrith Panthers. Creating new NRL teams creates opportunity. Bring another 60, even 100, players into the NRL, train them in club systems, teach them footy through the top league minds and the product will be more NRL players Some will be great, some will be OK and some will be punted. But whoever they are, that’s your NRL.

It is what it is. It’s what you have in any sporting competition. There is churn, burn and turnaround until clubs find a best XVII with top-four affectations. That just how it works. The Warriors and Tigers don’t do it as well as the Storm and Roosters. That some struggle and some know dynasties is a whole other argument about “fairness”.

But in this story of professional sport, some arguments against expansion are driven by self-interest. Clubs, agents and some players may not want to share the pie with too many others. Bring in more players and incumbents may need to take that 8% haircut, at least early as the new clubs find their feet.

But would the new clubs not receive a relaxation of salary cap rules to make them quickly competitive? And would not the salary cap expand for all clubs if the NRL is a larger “product” that broadcasters could sell more of to people? Would it not mean more prime-time entertainment upon which to sell advertising space and cable subscriptions?

Argument that the “product”, the entertainment on TV, will be lesser does not wash. Fans do not necessarily care about the “quality” of the football in terms of crisply completed sets. They want to be entertained. They want to cheer on their team and see them do well. Fans know that, like in every team, there will be good players and not-as-good ones. But, like the NRL competition, it is what it is.