The NRL has thrown their weight behind the proposed 2014 League Nines tournament, adding momentum to an event which could offer up to $3 million in prize money at Eden Park in 2014.
While there are still a few stages to be negotiated, the NRL is supportive of the proposal which would see all 16 teams come to Auckland in January for the short form of the game. The event also received a positive response at the NRL CEOs' meeting last week in Sydney.
"There is enthusiastic support for the concept," NRL Marketing and commercial manager Paul Kind told the Herald on Sunday. "We see it as a great showcase for the sport, with huge potential. The Wellington sevens has set a precedent for blending entertainment and sport into a spectacle and that is what we would be aiming for."
Kind said that it was a unique opportunity to bring all 16 clubs together before the start of the season and that there would be a lot of community engagement and visits as the NRL look to grow their presence in the New Zealand market.
Event promoters Dean Lonergan and David Higgins have met with NRL officials in the past two weeks, before a presentation at the CEOs meeting last Wednesday. The next step will see the proposal tabled at a meeting of the Australian Rugby League Commission.
"There are a few more steps to go on the path," says Kind. "But the clubs like the idea that they will be able to maintain their pre-season training and preparation programmes while they are in Auckland. The fact that they will be able to bring 25 players is a key element for them, as it keeps the wider squad together. I think it is realistic to expect some but not all of the elite players to attend."
The financial rewards on offer are another incentive, with some estimates of the annual prizemoney reaching up to $3 million. The event would not affect the existing pre-season schedule (clubs would still have three allocated weekends for trial matches), as it would run in late January, a week before the All-Star weekend.
The NRL have previously held a similar season-opening tournament, with the Rugby League World Sevens which ran from 1988-97. It had a five year hiatus before resuming in 2003-04. It featured NRL teams as well as a New Zealand representative side (pre-Warriors), international clubs (including Wigan) and some national teams (England, Canada and Fiji among others).
Souths were the inaugural winners in 1988 while Parramatta, Manly, Wigan and the Tigers were other title holders. Crowds and broadcaster interest had dipped by 2004, while some clubs refused to field their strongest sides. SuperLeague ran an international nines in 1996 in Fiji and 1997 in Townsville which finished when the 'war' between SuperLeague and the ARL ended in 1997.
"Our sevens tournament was very popular for a long time and we are confident this could work," says Kind. "We are now in an age where short-form versions of sport are increasingly popular, highlighted by Twenty20 cricket, and we believe there is a genuine appetite for this version of the sport."