4 May 2021

The NRL’s proposed conference system: what’s in it for the Raiders and fans?

| Tim Gavel
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Canberra Raiders viking clap

The conference system could impact crowd numbers at Canberra Stadium if the proposal goes ahead. Photo: Canberra Raiders.

Every time rugby league has a ‘vision’ to help the league, it has the potential to cause heart palpitations among Raiders supporters.

Remember Super League?

That period in the Raiders’ history is lamentable and resulted in fans walking away from the code and the team.

So naturally, there is an element of scepticism in the proposal to split the NRL into two conferences for the 2023 season.

Super League

Super League affected the Raiders club and fans long after reunification. Photo: Jennifer Andrew.

One conference would consist entirely of the nine Sydney teams: Roosters, Dragons, Parramatta, Manly, Sharks, Bulldogs, Souths, Wests Tigers and Panthers.

The ‘out of town’ conference would comprise the Raiders, Melbourne Storm, Broncos, Cowboys, Warriors, Newcastle and Titans, joined by a new second Brisbane-based team and a new second team in New Zealand.

The Sydney conference teams would play each other twice a season and one game against the out of town conference teams.

The out of town conference teams would play each other twice and once against the Sydney conference clubs.

The finals system would see the top four teams from each conference playoff against each other, with the winners from both conferences meeting in the grand final.

The competition would be extended to 25 home-and-away games before the finals.

The conference-style is big in American sport. But that doesn’t mean it would work in the NRL.

Let’s consider the advantages for the Raiders and fans first of all, if there are any.

The greatest advantage could be that Raiders games would be on free-to-air television more if they play the Broncos twice. But is this really an advantage?

The Raiders’ biggest-drawing opponents are Sydney-based clubs: Souths, Manly, Parramatta, the Roosters and the Dragons.

The Wests Tigers also attract a crowd at Canberra Stadium, as do the Panthers because of the teams’ proximity to Canberra.

Games against the Warriors, Titans and the Cowboys are a hard-sell in Canberra, let alone a second New Zealand team and a second side from Brisbane.

Under the proposed conference system, Raiders home games against the likes of Manly, for example, could be once every few years.

No wonder Sydney-based coaches such as Bennett and Hasler have endorsed the concept.

There’s less travel for a start. Also, crowds could be bigger because they are playing archrivals on a consistent basis.

On the other hand, the Raiders will be travelling more and playing in front of smaller crowds when playing at Canberra Stadium.

The NRL has implemented many positive changes in the past 12 months. For example, the NRL led practically every other winter sport in Australia when responding to COVID-19.

The game is also a better spectacle, thanks to recent rule changes.

With the introduction of a second Brisbane team highly likely, that will bring the total number of NRL teams to 17, hence the need for another team to make a total of 18 teams so that a bye is avoided.

The extra game each weekend is also more attractive for television.

In Peter V’Landys and Andrew Abdo, the code has two of the better leaders in Australian sport. V’Landys’ ‘can do’ approach has been of enormous benefit to the NRL. But are they being entirely Sydney-centric? How will this impact regional NSW and Queensland?

This latest proposal is unlikely to be met with too much enthusiasm beyond Sydney. If this proposal goes ahead, the groans from Canberra, I’m sure, will be heard loud and clear.

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There are some other reasons this is bad. The NFL has 32 teams and the conferences are about reducing travel. However that works equally for all the NFL teams as no city has more than 2 teams and the aim is to reduce flying from the east coast to the West coast (or vice versa) every second week. The conference system doesn’t help one group of teams at the expense of the others unlike the NRL idea.

Also with only 18 teams it is much more likely the best two teams in the comp will actually be in one conference. We’ll be robbing ourselves of a true GF everytime this happens. With 32 teams the chances of the best 2 teams being in one conference are less and usually the best team in the other conference is still pretty good. Reduce the teams the the split becomes more obvious.

Finally Newcastle and Canberra being close to Sydney are the biggest losers. They’ll have those Sydney road trips replace with more trips to Qld and NZ.

The idea of a conference system in the NRL is beyond stupid, it would almost certainly kill the sport nationally.

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