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Reshaping and expansion


EXCLUSIVE: Dragons-Sharks, Wests Tigers head NRL merger list, says Brad Fittler

The Dragons and Sharks should be merged and Wests Tigers given a rethink if the NRL wants to reduce the number of NSW teams, Brad Fittler says.

Fittler gave the verdict while responding to a fan question for Wide World of Sports, asking which two NSW teams should be cut in order to expand the competition around Australia.

With the Sydney market clogged by nine teams due to the old NSWRL competition model, the NSW capital is the obvious place to make changes in order to gain new territory without having too many NRL clubs, which would dilute the spread of playing talent.

Fittler said that local rivals St George Illawarra and Cronulla could form a southern super-club, while Wests Tigers needed a rethink to better represent key parts of western Sydney; perhaps even via a joint venture with Penrith Panthers.

Curiously, Fittler's options involve clubs that have already merged. The St George Dragons and Illawarra Steelers merged for the 1999 season, while the Western Suburbs Magpies and Balmain Tigers formed a joint venture for the 2000 competition.

"Cronulla to go and join St George Illawarra, make it a really big southern Sydney team that stretches down to Wollongong," Fittler, an NRL great and the current NSW Origin coach, explained on Freddy and the Eighth.

"The other one's Wests Tigers. I just don't know if they've done what they're supposed to do and I feel like maybe if we had a greater west team ... it just feels like, are that at Leichhardt, or Burwood, or Concord, or out at Campbelltown?

"I'm not sure. I don't think we pay Campbelltown area enough respect. Whether we have an outer-west team and that includes Penrith, and they take up that Penrith-Campbelltown area ...

"I'm not really sure who they link with but at the moment, we've got a bit of an identity crisis, I think, through a few of those areas."

Club mergers are a fraught topic, given the passion fans have for their clubs, but an eventual reduction in the number of Sydney teams may be inevitable.

Fittler's mentor Phil Gould predicted in May that two more Sydney clubs would be forced to merge over the next decade.

Fittler last year suggested that the Sharks could be relocated to Perth, the Gold Coast Titans should move to become Brisbane's second team and a club should be switched to the NSW Central Coast.

The NRL is currently working towards including a second Brisbane team for the 2022 season, likely a new franchise.

Perth has also been regularly touted as a desirable expansion option, as has a second side in New Zealand.

The Central Coast has long yearned for a team but faded as a serious contender, barring the possible future relocation of a Sydney club. It formerly hosted games for the Northern Eagles, the failed merger between North Sydney and Manly

Fittler and others are spot on. The game in Australia needs to expand into new markets in order t survive.

Where I disagree is the oft-stated belief that expansion territorially has to go hand in hand with hand with an actal reduction in team numbers. Fittler's belief that maintaining or increasing the overall number of teams will dilute the talent pool too much.

But all he is doing is singing from an ancient hymn book that has no relevance to the modern game. We have a ridiculous amount of talent at our disposal - more than in any other era. This is partially a result of more players brought in from New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. I can recall when for example, St George had two Fijians in there team in the late '60 and early '70s, Apisai and Inisai Toga. This was so unusual at the time as to be seen as a novelty. Now there is a not a team in the competition lacking cultural diversity. The other factor is that the game is no longer semi-professional. And with full professionalism comes better, more targeted training, better training equipment, a diverse range of specialist trainers and spots science all at the disposal of each club.

Expansion into the future with grow the game and in turn, grow the talent pool. Given that, and given the points above,  we do not need to reduce the overall number of teams.

That said, we do need to reduce the number of teams in Sydney.

I propose

  • a 20 team single competition where each team plays each team once with a top 8 team playoff series, or
  • 2 conferences of 10 teams each, with a top 5 teams playoff series in each, with the winners of each conference playing each other in a 3 game series, or
  • an A and  a B competition of 10 teams each with a top 5 playoff series and a system of regulation and promotion

Fittler is also right about one other thing when he says "I don't think we pay Campbelltown area enough respect." Any revamped/expanded competition needs to include a Campbelltown-based side representing the Macarthur district. This side furthermore, should no more be deemed a Sydney side than Newcastle is. Ths side could be the Wests Tigers rebranded as Macarthur Magpies, or a brand new franchise.

Fittler has named the Central Coast, Perth, Brisbane, and New Zealand as expansion areas for new franchises or the relocation of existing clubs. Let me add Adelaide, Central Queensland, Papua New Guinea and Darwin as other possibilities., albeit looking further into the future.



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