The Western Australian case for NRL expansion

OriginPerth Teams Line up for Anthem WA Origin
NSW and QLD line up for Origin 2 at Perth Stadium in 2019 Photo: NRL.com

NRL CEO Andrew Abdo recently announced ambitious plans to expand the competition to 18 teams.

If expansion goes to plan, fans will see two new sides for the 2023 season. As expansion comes, so do questions about what the new teams should be.

With Western Australia not having had a first grade side for 25 years, is it now time for the NRL to venture west?

Abdo spoke to the Courier Mail regarding this expansion.

“If we can make the numbers stack up, a second Brisbane team is pretty exciting to us. If we’re to have an 18th team, we would have to have a good hard look at New Zealand.”

The question that remains over the NRL is whether expansion into existing territories makes the competition truly national.

Western Australia has shown a solid appetite for rugby league and should be considered for one of the expansion teams. To truly become a national competition, the NRL needs to move past having the Storm as the most westerly team, and a Western Australian side is the answer.

During the tumultuous period of Australian rugby league in the 90s, the Western/Perth Reds were an exciting fixture.

The Reds played in the ARL competition in the 1995 and 1996 seasons before deferring to the ill-fated Super League. Unfortunately, the Reds experienced financial difficulties and exited the competition after 1997.

Today, the NRL is a much more mature and stable league, and the events of the 90s would be unlikely to repeat themselves. If Andrew Abdo were to take a punt on a WA side, it would pay off.

WA has continued to show an appreciation for rugby league. 59,000 fans witnessed State of Origin game two at Perth Stadium in 2019.

The NRL recently announced that Origin would be heading back west in 2022.

Over the last decade, the Rabbitohs have brought at least one match per year to Western Australia, with an average crowd of over 15,000. Comparatively, in a sport that averages crowds of 15,000 in Sydney, reaching that number in Perth is an excellent result.

Since Abdo’s announcement of the expansion, an exciting development has occurred.

Perth businessman Tony Sage, a key supporter of WA sport and owner of Perth Glory, has registered the names West Coast Quokkas as well as Perth Quokkas and Western Quokkas as possible names for a WA team. This also came with the news an expansion group is keen to invest 30 million dollars into a WA league side.

“It would be a huge benefit not only for ex-pat fans but more importantly, to help the grassroots which is not gaining ground in WA,” Sage told Nine Wide World of Sports.

“It’s not the National Rugby League without teams in Perth and Adelaide.”

There is, however, opposition to a WA side. NRL commission chairman Peter V’landys has previously spoken strongly on expansion.

“If there’s a 17th team, it will be in Brisbane; that’s where the market is, that’s where we are strong, it’s no-good spending a lot of money in rusted-on AFL states.”

It is a view that Abdo has expressed disagreement with.

“No one should lose sight of the fact NRL is committed to WA,” he said at the announcement of State of Origin 2022.

“We want to build it up with these kids seeing their heroes. Forget about all the chatter; words are cheap, action means something. Bringing our premium product here next year demonstrates that.”

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The West Coast Pirates are the current top tier side in WA.

The side competed in the SG Ball cup until 2020 when the season was suspended due to COVID-19. The side could not return in 2021 due to financial reasons and uncertainty around border closures.

Currently, the Pirates are focused on developing talent within the state, with nine pathway competitions for both boys and girls. These pathways are key in developing local talent for a potential NRL bid for 2023.

NRL WA Chairman John Sackson spoke to NRL.com on the possibility of expansion into his state.

“You’ve got to have those sorts of goals, and that is the goal for major stakeholders in the game here,” he said.

“We are focusing as best we can on growth in participation and strengthening the foundations of the game here, but we would certainly love the opportunity to have a franchise in years to come.”

A key criticism of the WA league, even expressed by Tony Sage, was a lack of local participation. Sackson suggests this is wrong.

“We’re up around 4000 participants now,” he told NRL.com.

“Participation numbers in Western Australia grew a remarkable 16.7% in 2018, almost five times the Australian average of 3.5%.”

The ultimate success for NRLWA and the Pirates is to produce juniors that go on to play in the NRL.

Former Canterbury winger Curtis Rona and ex-Dragon’s fullback Adam Quinlan are two of over 20 players who have moved up from the Pirates into the NRL.

Mick Potter, former WA Reds player, spoke on what it would take to create a successful WA team.

“It would make it a proper national competition, and they (NRLWA) have got the facilities over there to cater for it,” he told NRL.com.

“They have got the fan base to cater for it, so the distance is the only issue, but all of the other sports are able to cater for that.”

While the front-runners for expansion are currently Brisbane and New Zealand, if the NRL wants to become a truly national sport, a Western Australian side needs to be in the expansion plans.

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