The amazing triumphs of the PNG Hunters and the Toronto Wolfpack this year should really be all the proof the NRL needs to act now around expansion.
The Hunters yesterday produced a stunning late rally to capture the Intrust Super Cup (formerly known as the Queensland Cup) in just their fourth season of existence while the Wolfpack overcame the travel factor to earn promotion out of English League 1 into the Championship in their maiden season. The success of the Canadian club has already sparked interest in a second Canadian side and also a team based in New York entering the UK leagues in the coming seasons.
Both the Hunters and the Wolfpack have brought significant value to their respective leagues and created a heap of interest in their respective home towns and countries.
While Sydney NRL Finals matches continue to draw poor crowds there are places dotted around the rugby league landscape crying out for more big matches. Until now the NRL has wanted to make the existing 16 NRL clubs more financially stable before looking to add teams but that logic is totally flawed.
What if nine teams in Sydney is actually flooding the market and watering down the product? What if those clubs never become financially stable because there are too many clubs fighting for the same slice of the pie in Sydney? What if the opportunity to take the game to Perth or Brisbane again or PNG or New Zealand again is a window that is open only briefly? The NRL is sitting on its hands when it comes to expansion. If expansion clubs are ready, and I believe they are, then the NRL owes the game to make it happen even if that means killing off or handing over some existing NRL licenses.
I think the game could easily accommodate moving at least two clubs out of Sydney by handing their NRL licenses to expansion bids. The game needs to get to Perth and desperately needs a second Brisbane club. It should have happened by now. People will look at the previous attempt to put a club in Western Australia but that came at a time when the competition expanded four times all in one go and in the middle of the Super League war. It was highly unlikely any club would have succeeded in that situation. With Super Rugby leaving the area and an appetite for rugby league existing as well as the bonus time-difference factor to help television schedules, Perth is a no-brainer.
Brisbane also needs another team. The Broncos are the most popular club and the most financially sound operation in the NRL because they are a one-club town in a very strong rugby league market. The city could easily cater for one more club right now. The AFL has done a great job of creating natural rivalries in their expansion markets - this could be the start of that for the NRL.
You could also make a case to suggest moving a Sydney club up the road to Gosford is long overdue as well. There is a fan base up there crying out for an NRL team and surely the crowd, junior nursey pathways and sponsorship opportunities would be better there than in the crowded Sydney scene.
The game might not be ready to add teams but it certainly could spread the existing clubs better. If they did an A-League and started the comp all over again surely there wouldn't need to be so many teams in Sydney. At present the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Dragons, Sharks, Eels, Bulldogs, Tigers, Panthers and Sea Eagles play out of Sydney. It makes sense to hand three of those licenses to Perth, Brisbane and Central Coast bid teams right now. Who drops out - who knows? Everyone would have an opinion and the NRL should weigh up the pros and cons. People will complain about the lack of history with expansion teams over the strength of the old Sydney clubs but this Sunday we are about to watch the Storm and the Cowboys, two teams that didn't exist a little over two decades ago, go head-to-head for the title.
The other thing the NRL seriously needs to do is to map a way forward for prospective bids to enter the fray in the years ahead. They need to plan on expanding to 18 teams when the next TV deal is due or sometime shortly after and could set out criteria on what bids would need to make the cut.
While the NRL has done none of this the AFL and A-League have continued to add teams and start to eat into rugby league heartland. The NRL needs to take the fight back.