28 Mar 2019

Rugby League: Can NZ handle a second NRL team?

3:18 pm on 28 March 2019

Opinion - New Zealand can't justify an additional NRL franchise.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa Sheck. Photo: Photosport

Could we accommodate a relocated side? Maybe, but even that brings various problems.

Something is afoot here. Administrators don't reveal things by accident, so if NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg is saying that expansion and/or relocation is up for big discussion in the next 12 months, then you can assume the planning's already quite advanced.

Former Manly player and coach Geoff Toovey and ex-Kiwis captain Benji Marshall are among those suggesting a second NRL side would do well in New Zealand.

Marshall was even quoted as saying this country "is crying out for another team.''

As he'd well know having - a brief flirtation with the Blues rugby team aside - lived in Australia for nearly 20 years.

Let's start with the NRL team New Zealand have already got. After 25 years, the Warriors finally resemble a professional sporting outfit.

Having not always been run and coached by the most competent people, the club now boasts several staff among the best in their field.

Football general manager Brian Smith and head of recruitment Peter O'Sullivan have proven track records, as does head of high performance Alex Corvo.

Head coach Stephen Kearney cuts and increasingly impressive figure and his staff includes the capable Todd Payten.

After years of occasional boom, but mostly bust, the Warriors appear poised for a prolonged run of playoff football.

The NRL is a hugely competitive competition, but the Warriors look to have the right combination of playing ability, culture and nous to be a consistent performer.

They might not win the title anytime soon, but should at least avoid the wooden spoon.

Again, though, we're talking about a process that's taken 25 years. In that time we've seen the club enjoy a rusted-on fanbase of about 6500, with crowds swelling to 15,000 or 16,000 when things are going well.

In the few outstanding seasons the teams have enjoyed, then 25,000 fans have flocked to Mt Smart Stadium on occasion.

That's nice, but the history of the Warriors remains one of a club that's never quite achieved its potential.

The idea that New Zealand could sustain another franchise in, say, Wellington or Christchurch, is fanciful really.

Where would you get the players from? This is a rugby country after all.

New Zealand Rugby League don't have any money, as chief executive Greg Peters noted this week, nor any development programmes of note.

The game in the provinces barely exists, with cash-strapped districts struggling to sustain club competitions. In some areas they've even gone into recess over the years.

Stephen Kearney looking dejected at the post match press conference.

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney, along with the front office, has been the driving force behind making the club more professional. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The best bet is a relocated Sydney side, giving you the Wellington Tigers or Christchurch Sharks for example.

Christchurch, one because of geography and two because it retains a reasonable club competition, looks a useful option. Only, it lacks a suitable stadium and an unfortunate reputation.

If you're a Sydney club, you think of Christchurch as a place trying to rebuild after devastating earthquakes. The recent terror attack would come to mind too.

Wellington has a stadium, but who'd go to watch? Christchurch would have that problem as well.

You can't sustain a high-performance franchise on crowds of 5,000 to 10,000 people and you fear that, once the novelty wore off, that's what a new NRL franchise would get. Much like the Wellington Phoenix football club.

A relocated side would have no connection to the community and those fans that did go would invariably be there to see the Storm or Warriors or Broncos rather than their "home" team.

The other part of this is revenue. People in Sydney, where there are nine NRL clubs, argue that's too many.

Sponsorship dollars are scarce and something has to give making relocation, as unpalatable as that might be, an option.

That forgets, of course, that the NRL - like many competitions - is propped up by broadcast money. Logos on jumpers are great, but they're chump change really.

It's television and digital media rights that pay everyone's way and, on that basis, geography's irrelevant.

Broadcasters pay for content - ie games - and whether a team's in Sydney, Wellington or Perth doesn't change that. It would provide additional people to sell advertising to, but not substantially alter what a 16-team competition is worth.

Honestly, building one successful NRL franchise in this country has been so hard that two looks downright impossible.

*Hamish Bidwell is a contributor to Radio New Zealand. He has previously worked at The Northern Advocate, Gisborne Herald, Hawke's Bay Today, The Press, The Dominion Post and Stuff.