Sell-out Cronulla crowd shows why the NRL must reconsider playing more games at suburban venues

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Shark Park in all its glory. Photo – Sharks Membership

It’s one of the oldest debates in rugby league – should more games be taken to suburban venues in place of those played at soulless big event stadiums like ANZ Stadium and Allianz?

Take one glance at the sell-out crowd at Cronulla’s SCG Stadium on Saturday night and there’s a strong case for doing so.

But before the NRL jumps the gun and changes all Wests Tigers’ home games in 2017 from ANZ to Leichhardt, there are a few things that must be cleared up.

Firstly, the crowd on Saturday night may have been inflated somewhat due to the half-time dancing spectacular put on as a marketing ploy by Cronulla officials to sell extra tickets.

Secondly, the Sharks are fresh off a premiership victory, meaning more fans may be inclined to visit the ground rather than opting to watch the game on television.

Lastly, the Bulldogs were visiting Shark Park for the first time since 2011 and generally have a large following wherever they travel, particularly within NSW.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen excellent suburban crowds push the case for more games to be scheduled at grounds with less seating and a more intimate atmosphere.

The pay off, however, is that these particular grounds very rarely offer the same facilities as large scale venues with public transport access, video replay screens that can be seen by a patron sitting in row Z and a surplus of public amenities.

Brookvale Oval is one of the last suburban venues used on a regular basis in the NRL but even it is stuck in the 1990’s as far as facilities go.

So we must find a middle ground.

This means playing local derbies, such as Cronulla against the Dragons, exclusively at suburban venues while the box-office clashes that have no local appeal and where tickets are in higher demand remain at the game’s bigger venues.

Games such as the Easter Monday clash between Parramatta and Wests, which currently takes place at ANZ stadium due to its popularity, is one exception given the availability of Leichhardt Oval and the atmosphere that can be created by supporters packed onto the Wayne Pearce hill.

Some fans would miss out on tickets but rugby league is fast becoming a sport designed for television, so leaving a few fans dismayed by being unable to attend in person is a risk the NRL must take to prevent itself from being left red in the face over empty grandstands.

It’s not a matter of shifting all home matches to suburban venues but rather allocating a few more games, which would otherwise leave a venue like Allianz half empty, to grounds with a more intimate atmosphere.

Games like the Roosters against the Dogs, which would generally attract a crowd of 15,000 at Allianz or ANZ, could instead be taken to Bellmore where it would almost certainly sell-out and create a more attractive and engaging spectacle for both fans at the ground and those watching on at home.

But the NRL have been slow to move on this debate and it is easy to see why when you consider that they receive a greater slice of the pie at corporate venues through food and drink sales.

Moving the Easter Monday game away from ANZ and into Leichardt would also mean the NRL sells just 20,000 tickets as opposed 50,000 plus, and for a game that operates on the revenue it generates, this approach makes little business sense. Particularly given their current financial situation.

But it is something that must be done to save us the pain of watching a game at Allianz where the players can hear a pin drop when the game hits a lull.

Not all NRL teams have the luxury of playing at suburban venues anyway and most grounds around the country have undergone redevelopment to allow for increased seating due to a rise in attendance figures. So it would take only a few minor tweaks to the fixtures list on the NRL’s behalf to set the wheels in motion and give suburban venues more games.

Rugby League must escape ‘dark-ages’ mindset and endorse the international game

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The problem for international Rugby League is simple. Unlike many other sports around world, the national competitions, that is the games played between club sides in leagues like the NRL and Super League, are far bigger in scale than any of the yearly international tournaments (of which there are few) and one-off games played across a single weekend of festivities.

The NRL and RFL will tell you the international game is not broken, and hence doesn’t require fixing: a way of ensuring revenue remains unshared. But they are the custodians of the game on a worldwide scale. The ones responsible for ensuring that the health and well-being of proud League nations like PNG, Samoa and Tonga don’t suddenly suffer from tanking interest. Australia, New Zealand and England, though, will rarely play against the ‘minnow’ nations (and I use this term loosely) outside of a World Cup. So when England take the field on Saturday night at Campletown Stadium, they are breaking down a wall of Rugby League supremacy that has stood unmoved since the Super League war.

The demise of international Rugby League lies squarely on the shoulders of the NRL and Super League administrators, who both hold more power than the game’s specialist international governing body, and as such, decide when and where international tournaments are played. Forget about a universal voice, this is Rugby League oppression at its finest. The major players in Australia, NZ and England are the bearers of power and financial superiority, and so the wheels cannot be set in motion by the other associates, let alone the RLIF, until they have signed off on it, because without them, a tournament like the world cup would cease to exist. The governing bodies are well aware of this, and so exercising their dominance by putting on an international Rugby League showcase once a year becomes their best option for giving it a brief and necessary taste of the limelight, without going overboard.

Rugby League is not the only game that appears to be shrinking rather than expanding, however. Cricket, for example, has long been ruled by three superpowers of the international game – Australia, India and England – who have placed their own self interests before the well-being of the sport at large in regions struggling to keep their head above water. Unlike cricket though, international Rugby League seems to be losing (if it hasn’t already lost) its aura among fans in the hot spots, who see the rep round as an unnecessary detour in a long and, at times, misdirected season. This has come about through an over-saturation of club football and an under-appreciation for the importance of Rugby League played at international level.

Like I said in the opening remarks of this column, Rugby League is one of the few sports across the world that has a larger presence at national level than it does at a representative one; primarily in the areas which have national competitions. The AFL, of course, is one exception, because it too seems content with the following it has gained in Victoria and does not feel the need to break free of its own little bubble. But they have both missed the bus. Cricket, Soccer, Union, Hockey, and a large majority of every non-American-centric sport has realised that their respective national competitions are but a drop in the pond. Each conduct international tournaments in their own way, using their own structures (some of which are a little too exclusive), and others do not give the sport the coverage it deserves in nations that mightn’t have the same opportunities as far as funding and infrastructure are concerned. But they are making an effort to ensure the international game remains the highest level any player can aspire to represent. Rugby League must follow this blueprint.

This means establishing routine tournaments at the conclusion of the world’s major leagues, even if this solution still prioritises club football. The benefit here is that both the NRL and Super League conclude at almost the same time, opening the door for an international schedule to be put into effect around the late October/ November period. This would of course take a huge commitment from the respective governing bodies, who must at some stage ensure their players are given a rest in between seasons. They must also be satisfied that the games would rate well on television and receive adequate fan attendance figures, otherwise the concept could quickly go down the drain. Most importantly, though, some fixtures should be taken to areas such as Port Moresby in PNG or – now that the the City/ Country concept is coming to an end – to Mudgee, Lismore or Wagga Wagga where the bush Rugby League community can be re-engaged.

The Northern Hemisphere mustn’t be neglected either. England is the birthplace of Rugby League and interest in the Four Nations tournament last year shows that it is a country falling in love with the game all over again. The Catalans Dragons involvement in the Super League cannot be overlooked. They have gained a substantial backing since their debut season in 2006 and their charming venue in Perpignan, which creates a uniquely intimate atmosphere under the setting sun, is readymade, if ever so slightly small, for international hostage rights.

The final step, and this goes without saying, is ensuring more than 20 international teams, from Fiji, right down to the lowly ranked Cook Islands and a few of the affiliates, are in some way included. If this means setting up a division system, than so be it. It could hurt teams ranked 10 and below in the current RLIF rankings, who are next to no chance of defeating sides with a greater player pool and financial stability, but at least they would be given an incentive to boost participation rates and seek financial backing from their local governments, who will not act without reassurance that this sport will bring them some kind of economic return.

The intrigue of a promotion and relegation system cannot be denied either. It works so well in the Super League, giving sides in the championship hope of returning or debuting in the top league and obtaining the perks that go along with it, so why shouldn’t it at least be trialed at international level. It would, at the very least, see international Rugby League take on board greater context, while the competition between teams ranked between 5-10, and those hoping to crack the top division – which will bring with it an instant raise in match payments – would immediately lead to a more exciting spectacle.

The remaining issue with all of the above changes is still whether the powerhouses are willing to take a leap of faith and a financial hit, or whether they will continue to assert their dominance over the RLIF and uphold what seems to be a suppression of the international game. These are exciting yet confusing times for a sport still emotionally invested in club football.

The green and gold of Australia, black and white of New Zealand, and everything that goes along with it should be the greatest privilege a player receives and a prize they cherish no matter how long their representative career may last. But still there is an underlying presumption that the international game is far less important; on its last legs and struggling for meaning (even if this view is rarely, if ever, adopted by the players of our great sport). And until this ideology changes on behalf of the boards, international Rugby League will struggle to break the shackles that are holding it back.

Regions in PNG, Tonga and Fiji, to name but three, have contributed a great deal to the NRL over the years and deserve to reap the rewards of being a vital cog in the wheel of the world’s strongest club competition. Each week we marvel at the exploits of Suliasi Vunivalu, the speed and power of Marika Koroibete and, not long ago now, the spellbinding pace of Noa Nadruku. To showcase and commemorate their sheer talent, international rugby league must expand. Waiting is no longer an option.

 

Cronulla Sharks v Brisbane Broncos Match Preview

Cronulla will be without star winger, turned fullback, Valentine Holmes when they begin their title defence in the season opener tonight.

The Broncos will also be without retirees Parker and Reed, while the spotlight will be put on Halfback Ben Hunt in his first showing since it was announced he would be travelling to St George at the end of this year to join up with the Dragons on a 1.2 million dollar contract.

This game has all the makings of being one of the closest in the opening round. Both sides have notable omissions and will be playing with new structures as well as adjusting to different game plans now that some of the incumbents have parted ways. The Sharks halves are the key to a home victory tonight while the forward pack has a large role to play in nullifying the speed the Broncos enjoy playing with when they are at their try scoring best.

Brisbane’s athletic outside backs pose the biggest threat to the Sharks’ defence and will be looking to exploit their new look right edge which will feature Raiders recruit Edrick Lee. Cronulla have also lost three of their most competent attacking weapons in Barba, Ennis and Holmes and will therefore be asking Maloney and Townsend in the halves to take the line on more often, increase the ruck speed and test the Broncos defenders when they begin to show signs of fatigue. Second phase play was the cornerstone of Cronulla’s attack last year, so look for Gallen and Fafita to play up the middle of the ground where their offloads will be more effective.

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Wade Graham will be a vital part of the Sharks premiership defence. Photo: Sharks.com.au

Many have tipped the Broncos to miss the eight this year, and this comes as no surprise when you consider that they will need to negotiate a difficult draw in the lead up to Origin. Games like these away from home against an undermanned side are must win if they are to squeeze into what will be a tightly contested top eight.

Their inexperienced bench, when opposed to Cronulla’s, would be the biggest concern for coach Wayne Bennet going forward. Pangai Junior, Ese’ese and Arrow have limited first grade experience and will come up against bigger and better opposition benches when they play the clubs predicted to finish above them this year.

Bennett has had plenty of depth on his benches in the sides he’s coached over his career and has therefore been able to control the game. You need only think back to some of his premiership winning sides throughout the nineties, right through to his success with the Dragons in 2010, to see the players he had at his disposal and the impact they had on tightly contested games.

This is a new era for Bennet and one I’m not sure he is equipped to deal with now that his priorities lie elsewhere. There is a World Cup coming up at the end of this year and I’m sure that the RFL would want Bennet on deck at least two months prior to ensure England are in the best shape going in. This could have major ramifications for the Broncos at the pointy end of the season.

Expect the scoreline to be tight in the season’s opening fixture and few points to be scored. Both sides will look to grind the other into the ground by playing off the back of their forwards, preventing an open contest by limiting the time their play makers and outside backs have in possession. We may not see the attacking brand of football that payed dividends for Cronulla last year, and now that Ennis is no longer serving the side at hooker, Jayden Brailey will be required to service the big men close to the line, taking some of the sting out of their attack. Will he be able to catch out opposition defenders with his limited first grade experience? It’s a tough initiation for the young rake and it will take time before he gets a feel for the physicality and pace of first grade.

Without Parker though, the Broncos have some concerns of their own that require addressing.

We’re in for an exciting first game to kick off the 2017 premiership.

 

Mutual agreement of terms a must to save World Club Challenge from impending death

If there was ever a sign that the NRL no longer have any interest in sending its teams to the UK for the World Club Challenge, this is it. The revamped tournament which began two years ago, featuring three teams from each league in a ‘series’ style format, has been cut to just two this weekend and if recent trends are any indication, in just two years the traditional fixture may cease to exist.

The World Club Challenge has been through numerous iterations since its inception as an exhibition match between Eastern Suburbs and St. Helens back in 1976, damaging the tournament’s reputation as a traditional rivalry worthy of both the fans attention and the respective boards’ resources. The regular reshuffling of the tournament’s structure, as well as the questionable qualifying methods and sporadic scheduling have been just as, if not more damaging, to the competitions relevance and integrity than anything else.

The differences between what the RFL and NRL governing bodies wish to get out of the World Club Challenge are world’s apart and this is at the core of their very one sided tussle for keeping the ageing concept alive.

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The Broncos take on Wigan in the 2015 World Club Series – Photo: Wigan Warriors

The Super League bosses are visionary’s who wish to turn the competition into something it isn’t and never will be; their over-inflated sense of the tournament’s self worth is damaging when they come to asses its popularity, but are driven by optimism when they consider what the ‘Big Brother’ can do for Rugby League in the UK. So much so that plans are already being put in place to shift a regular season Super League fixture to Australia to broaden its reach, while negotiations around the NRL moving a game off-shore and into its rival market are also reportedly underway. What benefits this has for the NRL outside of boosted TV ratings on UK cable television, it is difficult to tell.

The NRL, on the other hand, are the churlish, cashed up stepsisters who get what they want, when they want, and aren’t bothered by a total boycotting of the World Club Challenge because they lose nothing in doing so and have already cracked open parts of the Australian market, and as such, can foresee no great financial or profile raising benefits. It’s simply a clogging up of an already cluttered pre-season schedule that is running the risk of injuring one of its major draw-cards. The Nines are a far easier way for the NRL to grow its image and expand its geographical reach, that is, if these are indeed their goals for participation in the World Club Challenge/ Series. It doesn’t require conversations with its English counterparts and can therefore run its own show, hassle free. The single weekend is another rather attractive quality for a board that has bigger fish to fry than organising a pre-season kick-about – even if its worth more than the sum of its parts now that it is established and ready for expansion.

At the moment, they are a couple of sparring partners fighting for two very different causes. The Super League – to grow their brand by reaching out to Rugby League heartlands in the shadow of the EPL, which will, in turn, lead to boosted revenue and an increased playing standard as international talent is lured to the country. The NRL – to give their clubs exposure to an international market. But they are the power brokers in the great chain of Rugby League being and can do as they please. As such, they may prefer to stage a game featuring two Australian sides in the UK from which similar outcomes to those gained though the World Club Challenge will be derived, less the time consuming negotiations and revenue sharing with the RFL.

These are far from the only reasons the World Club Challenge is beginning to dig its own grave, however. When one competition has refused for years to send out its best players and make a decent hash of the innovation, and in doing so, fails to reward the paying public for their interest by treating it like a glorified trial, they single-handedly erode both the fans and sponsors faith in the concept, while also removing the semblance of integrity that has managed to hang around after a long history of mismanagement and miscommunication between governing bodies that stems right back to the rather spontaneous clash in 1976, which occurred just before the concept went into hiding for eleven years. In this regard, the NRL and its representative clubs have stepped up their game in recent times, suggesting that perhaps they might wish to give this competition the attention and recognition it deserves after 41 long and ill-fated years.

Many would be surprised to know that the Super League are the leading title holders of the World Club challenge by 12 to 11; if you can excuse the 22-team tournament played in 1997. But when you scan through the results to relive some of the great Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors victories, you are immediately reminded that the Australian teams were far from full strength outfits. Not necessarily through the mid 2000’s – the Brisbane Broncos took the field with a similar side to their premiership winning team of the previous year in their clash with St. Helens in 2007, as did Manly following their premiership triumph  – but most certainly since the formation of the new ‘Series’ format in 2015, even if the results have reflected poorly on the Super League. And yet, there are still claims that the gulf in standards between the NRL and Super League are responsible for the competitions flagging interest. How is that when, historically speaking, the Super League holds a slight advantage in the World Club Challenge stakes.

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The tussle for power continues – Photo: Getty Images

When NRL clubs have found themselves on the wrong end of a result, they generally blame jet-lag, the climate or the out-of-season fixtures. When they win, the opposition is not up to standard. It’s a merry-go-round of conflicting rhetoric more violent than the frequent changes that have accompanied the competition’s many different incarnations. There’s a stigma associated with the World Club Challenge/ Series and, as hard as it tries to shake it off through innovation and reinvention, it continues to hang around like a bad smell. But without a mutual understanding from all parties involved as to the importance of this competition in growing Rugby League at grassroots level and in general across the UK, the World Club Challenge will never become more than the eh ‘pre/ early -season filler’ it currently is. And that mutual understanding will never be achieved when one organisation reaps little to no benefits whatsoever from the concept in its current form. Compromises, made by the Super League, are therefore a necessity going forward if it hopes to ensure the competitions longevity. It must appease the golden goose in the interim in order for it to take a golden egg. And this will entail World Club Challenge games becoming more accessible and time friendly for the NRL’s biggest asset – fans across Australia.

Three years ago the Sydney Roosters played host to the Wigan Warriors in front of 37,000 fans at the Sydney Football Stadium. It was the first time the competition appeared to gain traction and the first time the fans bought into the contrived rivalry that has now become a tradition. If the two organisations wish to see this competition flourish into the successful, revenue and profile raising product it has always promised to become, but never amounted to, it must travel from country to country, stick to a specified structure and feature only the past years grand finalists in a one off game. Adding extra sides does nothing but detract from the Super League season already in play and undermine the importance of the fixtures that lie either side of it.

It’s a sound enough concept with solid foundations that has worked in other sports and, if treated correctly, can become a prestigious event that the grand finalists use as extra incentive in their quest for a premiership.

 

 

 

BLOG: Wholesale changes afoot for Dragons at season’s end

I like many other Red V fans sat frustrated for the better part of seventy-minutes on Sunday, as the Dragons turned out yet another performance bereft of attacking flair and defensive solidity. Unfortunately, this has become an all too familiar sight for this enigmatic side over the last few years. The result on Sunday was a predictable one. For only the first ten minutes of the game did the Dragons ever look like calling the bluff of the betting agencies. For the remainder of the contest, the Farah-less Tigers looked determined to end a tumultuous week off the field with a resounding victory on it. The young halves in Brooks and Moises were poised, level-headed and reverted to playing on instinct when sticking to structures failed them. They did what all good halves do. Challenge the line, link up with the big men, force repeat sets through effective last tackle kicks and suss out the defensive lapses of the Dragons. Most importantly, they manufactured tries through ad-lib football at stages when their attack appeared to have hit a rough spot. A refreshing, reassuring sight for Wests Tigers fans I’m sure. They looked a class above experienced campaigners Marshall and Widdop, who struggled to stamp any authority on the game. The performance was a minor improvement on the lackluster efforts of the last two weeks for the Red V. But it’s going to take radical improvements in both attack and defence if they are to get through a horror three week period against the competition heavyweights unscathed.

There’s no doubting that a clean out is imminent at the Dragons once the curtain is drawn on season 2016. The mediocre, steadily declining performances of recent seasons warrant this. Doust will be axed as growing fan unrest gains traction, while McGregor and his right-hand men will follow in the immediate aftermath. Since Bennet’s tyrannical reign came to an end in 2011, (I really should be more diplomatic given the Dragons won a premiership under his tutelage) the Dragons have finished 9th, 14th, 11th and 8th. Over these four seasons, their biggest achievements have been the sacking of a coach and the acquisition of a halfback who has failed to conjure up the flash in the pan success he showed a little under a decade ago. I admire the guile of Benji. His left-foot step was poetry in motion at the peak of his powers. He was, and still is, a commentators dream when he breaks the tackles of defenders two times his size to score a ninety-meter run away try. But for someone like myself who is so heavily invested in this club, I just don’t see him as an adequate fit for Widdop. That is, of course, if the six and seven is indeed the combination they wish to build their successes around in future. And it should be, given the Dragons habitual point scoring struggles – they sit just fourteen-points clear of the last placed Newcastle Knights in this regard. It would be unjustly myopic of me to suggest that the halves are the sole proprietors of the form slump, but then again, the stats tell an incriminating tale. Benji’s lateral running style leaves players around him flat-footed and confused when the ball is floated their way. The wrap-around play that he so often institutes is rarely executed with any degree of perfection and can be sniffed out and shut down instantly by defensive units. It’s a shame, because this ploy worked like clockwork for the West Tigers through several finals campaigns, albeit during the mid to late 2000’s.

On the other side of the equation is Gareth Widdop, who has been missing in action for the Dragons during several of the losses this season, not through injury or suspension, but through underperformance and limited involvement. His leadership has been equally non-existent, with calls now for his tenure to be prematurely relinquished just five months into its journey. In short, the Dragons attack is predictable, easily read by the opposition defence and prone to periods where it loses direction, either through frustration or lack of ideas. They require an inventive playmaker, someone who complements Widdop or Marshall – whomever they choose to carry on in the role, only one can remain – and can change the point scoring fortunes of the Dragons by playing what’s in front of them. We have, however, reached round 21, which indicates that the pool of free-agents is rapidly thinning. The Dragons have already lost out on the signature of Luke Keary that, up until the tricolours snuck under the radar to snavel him, they looked certain to secure. Its left many wondering what personnel changes, if any, will be made to upgrade the quality of the playing roster. All things being equal, and assuming they fail to lure Corey Norman, the Dragons will need to return to the negotiating table once more to increase the $300,000 contract extension offer to something more palatable for Marshall and his manager.

Mary McGregor said himself in the press conference following the game on Sunday that cohesion has gone missing at the Dragons this season because they’ve been without a regular spine. While this has had some bearing on the results, a clear inability to score points in attacking field position stems from more than a simple lack of cohesion. This appears to be McGregor’s superficial response in a futile attempt to divert attention away from his sides difficulties, and of course, the mounting pressure he faces in retaining his job as head honcho. Perhaps Geoff Toovey will give coaching another go despite the terms on which he and Manly parted ways if the Dragons and McGregor do fall out of love. His methods are tried and tested, while his bloody-mindedness and resolve would set the Dragons attack on the straight and narrow.

When the Dragons led the competition for a brief period last season, defence formed the crucial underpinning of their victories. In fact, it is what the Dragons claim to be the cornerstone of their game. It was difficult then to watch on Sunday as the Tigers strolled through untouched to score on two occasions. Even more painful was watching three defenders drop off a single player while others stood and watched in back play. There was nothing special about the pass from Halatau to Nofoluma, nothing that should have allowed the latter to breeze past the weary marker defenders and into a gaping hole with ease. But on this and many other occasions throughout the afternoon, the Dragons defence was sadly lacking, particularly up the middle of the field. So much so that the eighth immortal found it apt to lambaste their defensive incompetencies. Is this a confidence issue, or are they not trusting the man beside them? Perhaps we’re viewing the  results of more crude coaching methods?

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Feel free to chime in with your opinions below Dragons fans….

How the NRL is holding us to ransom over the National Youth Competition

For the past eight seasons, the NRL’s National Youth Competition (NYC) has been at the vanguard of junior player development. The new broadcast rights deal will, however, bring an end to the competition responsible for identifying and facilitating the games most promising under-20 talent.

The competition has long found censure in regards to its substandard quality. Scorelines are a case in point. Many concede that in a majority of cases the NYC leaves players ill-equipped and unprepared for the rigours of the big time in the NRL – particularly in regards to defensive structures and general toughness.

The concern is that these defensive inadequacies will filter into the first-grade arena and infect its superlative standard.

Game quality aside, the financial burden on both the NRL and its subsidiaries is arguably the greatest drawback of the NYC. Exorbitant running costs associated with interstate travel and accommodation, not to mention player and staff wages, are significant financial blows for NRL clubs to incur, particularly given that the competition offers little return on investment, monetarily speaking. Television and sponsorships are the only viable sources of income.

Finance and player development have become mutually exclusive in the NYC, effectuating a catch-22 situation for NRL clubs. In this case, without a short-term investment in the under-20s, the long-term gain of a talented youngster retained in the wings for first-grade is forfeited. This is a hefty fee to pay for an investment fraught with instability, particularly in an age of market volatility and third party agreements.

Keeping a player resolute to a club’s mantra in the face of a large pay rise is especially difficult for a club with little capital inflow. A 2015 report revealed that clubs such as the Newcastle Knights and Gold Coast Titans were ranked 12th and 13th respectively in terms of developing the greatest number of first-grade players from the NYC.

Unremunerative investments have unearthed further complications for the NYC. For a long period of time, an investment in the under-20s was nugatory and counterproductive for clubs like the Melbourne Storm. They yielded very few players directly from the NYC, as their under-20s side churned out players for the Cronulla Sharks and its NSW Cup affiliate across the opening six years of the competition. Instances of this nature have dramatically reduced over the past few seasons.

These ideologies aren’t empty platitudes, they are genuine concerns for a schismatic competition. One that appears boundless on paper, yet is frivolous and flawed in reality. One that, most importantly, is moving towards a foregone conclusion: the demise of the NRL’s most pragmatic junior rugby league pathway.

Pragmatic in the sense that imitating the NRL’s framework deals with reality, as well as the pitfalls and plateaus of being a professional rugby league player – training, travel, nutrition, media work and team camps. It just so happens that some of the perks associated with operating a competition of the NYC’s magnitude are simultaneously cracking open the nest egg of clubs which are struggling financially.

Despite the costs, we should still lend credence to a competition that has uncovered innumerable diamonds in the rough for the NRL. Throughout its eight years of operation to date, the NYC has provided us with a product that is fundamentally accessible – both for clubs and the public – and a means by which to assess the next crop of footballing maestros.

The NYC’s vastly populated alumni roll is a testament to this. In its inaugural season alone, the competition exposed some of the current day superstars – Trent Merrin, Ben Hunt, Ben Barba, Wade Graham and Gareth Widdop to name but a few. By removing the NYC, surely we are removing an essential bridge to first grade and compromising the health of the NRL over the succeeding decades.

Despite the copious number of threads validating the pros of the NYC, any and all approbation of this competition is rapidly eroding. With every season comes further calls for its neck by the rugby league fraternity, effectively blunting the cogency of any counter argument.

I for one wholeheartedly agree that this competition, while having served as an essential breeding ground for some time, is in need of a seismic overhaul in order to address both the financial and logistical concerns that are ubiquitous under the current system.

An ostensibly enhanced nine-week competition played across state lines in lieu of the Holden Cup looms as the most likely avenue for the NRL to take following the implementation of the next broadcast rights deal.

If the NRL was to sketch up a blueprint of objectives and requirements for an ideal NYC, they would be sure to appease any criteria pertaining to the enhancement of game quality. Without this, we are left with a competition that is ultimately sterile, commercially unattractive and unproductive in readying players with the physical and mental attributes that are required in the NRL.

That’s why a nine-week competition, while addressing the financial disquietudes, will repeat the failings of the NYC in terms of player development. It’s why any future competition must be played statewide – independent of the NRL clubs – thus acting as a feeder competition for the Queensland and NSW Cups.

This will allow young players, specifically forwards, to learn the ropes and complete their rugby league apprenticeships against seasoned pros. It’s why there must also be a steady progression and perspicuous understanding of the stepping stones between each of the SG Ball, Harold Matthew’s, under-20s and Queensland/NSW Cups.

A clear-cut pathway will ensure players – primarily those that are underdeveloped – avoid falling victim to the endemic flaws of the system, particularly during years when walking away from the game appears the most rational option. Not every player that graduates from the NYC is of the same pedigree as Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic and Ashley Taylor, whose natural rugby league prowess and smarts have enabled them to make a seamless, untarnished transition directly from the NYC to the NRL.

Whatever you make of the current format and its logistical deficiencies, by no means should an under-20s competition be eradicated. The NRL has not yet succumbed to its steady disillusionment with the NYC, but it’s doing everything it can to hold us to ransom over it, while simultaneously heightening our intolerance of it.

These players are the future and the lifeline of the NRL. They must be treated accordingly, through the implementation of a sustainable rugby league breeding ground that is an untiring advocate of their development.

Originally posted at: www.theroar.com.au/2016/07/12/nrl-holding-us-ransom-nyc/