Warriors coach Nathan Brown has cautiously backed the NRL's expansion plans, which include a second franchise in New Zealand and a conference system, as long as the emphasis is put squarely on player development.
Brown said while there were a lot of details to be ironed out – including perceived advantages for Sydney clubs in the proposed new model – it could only be good for the game.
After the announcement of a $26.6 million loss for 2020 last week, which was a better financial result that anticipated, NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo put the expansion idea firmly back on the agenda this week.
Abdo's first priority is a second Brisbane team, but it wouldn't stop there.
"Moving to 17 teams wouldn't be an end point. It gets you closer to 18 teams and obviously 18 teams gives you a few different options," he told NRL.com.
"An 18th team allows you to think about what we might want to do about expanding in New Zealand. Having two teams in New Zealand creates a tribalism and a new rivalry in New Zealand."
Abdo also mooted the idea of splitting the NRL into two groups, similar to the NBA's Western and Eastern Conference.
"It gives you options around pools because you can have two pools of nine teams. As you see with some of the big US sports, as you grow your competition and the scale of the number of teams, you can create a dynamic around who plays who and ultimately create more rivalries in regional areas and have competitions within competitions."
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the model would see the nine Sydney teams grouped in one pool (and play each other twice), with the three Queensland clubs, Warriors, Storm, Knights, Raiders and two expansion teams in the other.
Critics have suggested that it would make the competition even more inequitable, given the perceived travel advantages the Sydney clubs already have, but Brown has an open mind.
"Travel is a part of sport, all over the world," said Brown. "No doubt that teams not travelling get some kind of advantage. That was proven last year during Covid, some sides didn't travel at all and it was no coincidence that their injury tolls and performance were certainly helped by that.
"It certainly makes it a little different for sides that have to travel a lot, there's no doubt about that but it's about getting the right squad together and belief amongst them and you can overcome all sorts of things.
"[We] certainly don't want to use the travel as a reason not to perform, because I don't think New Zealand is going to pick up and move the country any closer. I would just want to make sure we manage it the best we do."
Brown said the key was enhancing the grassroots, both in New Zealand and across the broader game, saying that the Warriors couldn't be expected to carry the development burden in this country, because "everyone else only pinches the players".
He added that the mooted increased funding for NRL clubs would allow the talent pool to match what was available in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was much more depth with a reserve grade competition and an under-21 system.
"There's been a lot of clubs in the past 10 years that have tried to save on their bottom line and put less time into developing players [by] just cherry picking, which I understand," said Brown. "But if the game is going to provide the funding for the clubs to put into development, I only see that as a real benefit long-term."