Rugby League & the Battle for Hearts & Minds in the West

Campbelltown is only 35 kms from the heart of Sydney as the crow flies – yet growing up there in my formative years during the late ’60s through most of the 1970s, it may as well have been a world away. It was for instance, a timed and expensive STD call to phone Sydney, and to get there by public transport was a train straight from a Hitchcock film, with those separate little compartments made for going on epic cross-continent adventures. Add sleeping berths and a food carriage and you’re on the poor man’s Orient Express.

Like everywhere else in NSW, Rugby League may as well have been the only winter sport in town. And as the area grew and expanded, it became a great nurturer of football talent.

By the 1990s, Rugby League was becoming less and less a sport that had been instituted for the working man and his family, and more and more of a business, with some of the good, but also all of the bad which that entails, culminating in a TV network – the Nine Network – forming a separate competition, taking some of the existing clubs with it and forming new ones.

That league lasted one season before the then existing peak body, the ARL, combined with the Super League to form the NRL.

Flowing from all of this upheaval, the 1999 season saw two new teams form from “joint ventures” – one between St George and Illawarra and another between North Sydney and Manly.

The following year saw another joint venture – this time between two foundation clubs, Western Suburbs and Balmain.

Western Suburbs’ problems go back to the early 1980s court battles to stay in the competition and a move to Campbelltowm which saw them survive until the end of the 1999 season and the 2000 birth of the new Wests Tigers.

After the 2005 season when the team won the NRL Grand Final, the future seemed assured of much more success. But this has not been the case. The bright future quickly turned into a succession of bitter disappointments on the field and off, amid a growing feeling of the alleged 50/50 partnership becoming more and more lopsided in favor of Balmain, with commentators referring to the team as “Balmain” and with ex-Balmain players being the “go-to” interview subjects whenever comment was sought. Campbelltown meanwhile was being relegated to a paltry 3 games per year.

All of this unevenness exists in favor of Balmain despite the Balmain half of the deal being in severe financial distress for several years, culminating in entering into voluntary administration. The Western Suburbs half of the deal has been and apparently will continue, to foot all the bills.

This has been the final straw for many Western Suburbs fans now calling for the Joint Venture to be annulled, with the return of their beloved Magpies to stand alone again in the premier competition.

The major obstacle is the Wests Ashfield Leagues Club board, stacked as it is with a majority of Balmain supporters and others determined to see the Wests Tigers as the only possible future. The Wests part of the equation comes in a poor third. More equitable treatment of Wests may or may not have have seen this current push staved off. We’ll never know.

The nature of puerile and partisan politics has seen climate change policy become a basket case. It has seen millions of dollars thrown at mates of the government to steer the rescue of the Great Barrier Reef, all without any tender process. It has seen the fruition of many a good plan never see the light of day. And that is what is happening with Wests Ashfield and the NRL.

It is now just a local call to phone the city from Campbelltown. Trains from and to there are plentiful and modern. New and better roads have been built into and across the district. Infrastructure has boomed, even if not always keeping pace with the population growth. In short, we are no longer in 1968, Dorothy! But that is seemingly where Wests Ashfield and the NRL are stuck, at least when it comes to the Magpies and the MacArthur district.

The current population of Campbelltown is 167,468 and is forecast to reach over 275,000 by 2036. That is not taking into account surrounding towns such as Camden and Appin among many. Meanwhile soccer has established a team in Campbelltown for their national A-League competition. It will relegate MacArthur to a backwater of Rugby League. Yet other major centers outside of Sydney, such as Newcastle, show that a regional center can and will get behind national teams in more than one code or sport.

Now is the time to have the conversation. Now is the time to make plans and put down roots in one of the greatest Rugby League nurseries ever. But that conversation cannot be allowed to be behind locked doors among the Old Boys clubs and networks. It has to be an open forum and include the fans. After all, isn’t the game supposed to be for that particular stake-holder and no other? In fact, this could be just part of a much bigger conversation about the future of the game itself.

The current situation of each team playing every team once and some twice is patently unfair where some teams get a much easier run to the semi-finals than others, We need to expand the competition nationally so that each team plays each team only once in the regular season. Or expand but split into two conferences ala US football, or have a two tiered system with relegation and promotion ala UK soccer.

Campbelltown residents celebrate becoming a city in 1968. Help Wests Ashfield and the NRL understand it is not 1968 any more

Campbelltown had a football team in the national competition until the forced Joint Venture. None of the joint ventures have been a success. Since beginning this campaign, it has become apparent that Wests Ashfield in particular, have a rote set of excuses to trot out which they label as immovable obstacles to a return to the Magpies and to Campbelltown.

It is a con job.

Example 1: Wests Ashfield would not want to play home games so far from where they themselves are located. Yet that is precisely what happened when the Magpies moved to Campbelltown in the 1980s, proving that they can do it. Obstinacy is not a reason, unless you are a 5 year old.

Example 2. Wests Ashfield has recently, and in partnership with Canada Bay Council, plowed millions into a Center of Excellence to be built at Concord Oval. The response to that is that Campbelltown City Council is also building a Center of Excellence. Has anyone asked if some arrangement could be made with any future NRL team based in the region to use such a facility? That needs to be part of the OPEN discussion. As does having some matches played each year at Concord.

Example 3.The Tiger is more marketable than the Magpie. Of course, this has not been the case in the AFL where the Collingwood Magpies have dominated for many years in terms of club membership. The Magpie is a winner in the marketing stakes. I would also add that the old Wests Mascot, Mark the Magpie, was about the most entertaining and loved of all the team mascots. Could that mascot perhaps be reborn as “Mac the Magpie”? The marketing possibilities are enormous if someone with the personality of the “old” version could be found to fill the costume.

There are more, but none that cannot be defeated by facts and logic. They are excuses, more than they are obstacles. If you would like to see the Magpies back and based permanently in Campbelltown – perhaps even renamed as the MacArthur Magpies, please sign the petition here and share it with others. You can also voice your opinion directly to the NRL here and Wests Ashfield Leagues club here. People Power can win. But only if enough people get involved. So what are you waiting for? Get involved!

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