The time is now for the Gold Coast to deliver #NRL #RugbyLeague #TitansUnite2014

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Carty

South East QLD has always been Rugby League heartland. From the Tweed to Brisbane has always been apart of the Rugby League landscape, the territory. The Gold Coast, the famous holiday strip, has been a vital component within that landscape. Rugby League on a professional level first came to prominence when in 1988 the Gold Coast Giants were established, joining other expansion clubs in Brisbane Broncons and the Newcastle Knights. This was the first major step towards laying a foundation for the future growth, development and pathway for the games future to one day become a national game (Sadly, we’re still waiting)

It was also significant in the fact that the Gold Coast would take the honour of becoming the first Queensland club to become an official part of the NSWRL competition, however that would be short lived at Brisbane had an agreement with the governing body that it was to be the only Queensland based NSWRL Club. So the Gold Coast became known as the Gold Coast-Tweed Giants, playing out of Tweed Heads, home to the Tweed Heads Seagulls RLFC. It was a bold move for the administrators at Phillip St, the old Rugby League Headquarters, as it was their first venture outside of the Sydney metropolitan area. Be it that in 1982 Canberra and Illawarra were still within the state of NSW and not far from Sydney, Newcastle was a couple of hours away, although two Queensland clubs was ground breaking for the game that prided itself on being a Sydney competition.

Since 1988, the Gold Coast has had an array of lives, identities and opportunities. In the top tier; they have taken the form of the Giants, the Seagulls, the Chargers and in 2007 were re-born as the Titans. Why so many ventures and re-branding exercises? A fair summation would suggest the Gold Coast’s life as the Giants, Seagulls and Chargers were complete failures. They struggled for success. Even signing the King, Wally Lewis as captain coach in 1992 couldn’t lift the Seagulls to the Finals or a crack at the title.

Many hold the opinion that the Gold Coast and Rugby League will never work; is not meant to be and will never amount to anything or achieve any significant amount of success in the game. They base these views and opinions on the fact that history suggests, players who are either from the region or sign to play for the Gold Coast are not there to win a Premiership, instead, are there for a holiday, lapping up the sun, surf and overall, lifestyle that the Gold Coast offers and is renowned for. I guess there may be a solid case and argument by those critics if you scroll through the history books.

In 1997, the Gold Coast made the ARL Finals; the first time a Gold Coast team had ever qualified for the Finals in Premiership History. The Chargers would take on fellow 1982 entrants Illawarra Steelers. The game would bring down the curtain on a fell travelled journeyman in Martin Bella. The Chargers boasted a competitive team, striking a balance between enterprising youth and the right amount of experience, lead by Bella and Graham Mackay, whilst the enigmatic Wes Patten was the team’s X-Factor. Their Coach, Phil Economidis, still coaching in France, was a revelation in getting the Chargers to the Finals.

1998 was a disappointing year in more ways than one. Not only did the Gold Coast fail to back up their maiden finals appearance the previous year, they also fell victim to the bitter ARL-Super League War’s compromise. The formation of the National Rugby League came with certain stipulations and conditions from both governing bodies. Both would cull respective clubs to get the number of teams down to a respective number. The ideal number that the NRL had identified was 14 and was going through a process as they called it ‘rationalisation’ in other words, killing off clubs and forcing clubs into unwanted Joint Ventures to get to that magic number.

The Chargers were sent to the grave, along with the Adelaide Rams. 12 months prior, it had been the South QLD Crushers, the Perth Reds and Hunter Mariners. There would be more blood letting to come, but punting the Chargers into the abyss in my opinion was a horrible business decision. But then, forcing Foundation Clubs to forgo 100 years of history to be apart of the Game’s future, the Game they helped create and establish was also shocking. You would never see the AFL kill off the likes of Richmond, Essendon, Collingwood, Carlton. The AFL understands its history means everything. Something Rugby League dropped the ball with and has been struggling to recover from ever since. But I deviate from the topic (Back to the Gold Coast…)

Enter Michael Searle,  a former Seagull himself, face of the new Gold Coast consortium, vying for re-entry into the NRL competition. Selling and spruking a profitable, sustainable business model including two arms of the business; a football club arm and a property arm, with the property arm housing the Gold Coast administration and training base, (later to be known as the Centre of Excellence) and a State Government funded Stadium in a fresh, new, vibrant area known as Robina. Searle was a man on a mission. He engaged the local community and area in his quest to get Rugby League back on Gold Coast. And it worked, the NRL gave the green light for expansion, taking the 15 team competition to an even 16. The Titans would now rise to the shoreline of the majestic beaches of the southeastern coast of QLD.

Searle went on a spending bonanza. Securing Former Penrith Panthers Premiership backrower John Cartwright who was serving his apprenticeship at the Sydney Roosters was appointed the inaugural Gold Coast Titans Coach. Searle lured former Australian and NSW Origin prop Luke Bailey from the South Coast of Sydney, whilst Scott Prince, Premiership winning Captain of Wests 2005 triumph would leave Campbelltown and relocate to QLD to be closer to family. Preston Campbell, an original Gold Coast Charger would also return to the new club as they assembled a roster that wanted success and to do dispel any talk or criticism like in previous years that it would once again become a holiday destination for Rugby League players.

The Titans would narrowly miss the Finals in their inaugural year, but it would not be long before Finals would beckon. 2009, 2010 and 2011 saw the gold Coast make the Finals, and in 2010, fall one game short of a maiden Grand Final appearance going down to the Brian Smith coached Roosters. Since then though, they have failed to make a dent in the competition. Not even a ripple. A team that on paper, has a very competitive roster when comparing it to its rivals. Representative players like Nate Myles, Greg Bird, Ashley Harrison who have been staples in the Origin arena for years, combined with exciting youth who possess tremendous speed, power and enthusiasm.

So what’s gone so terribly wrong? Apart from alarming ticket prices at Skilled Stadium, where one feels that they may have to donate an organ to watch a fixture at the ground; avoiding potential insolvency and administration after the property arm of the club’s business went belly up as a result of the Global Financial Crisis which saw founder and former Managing Director Michael Searle step down and relinquish control, moving into a different role within the entity and a messy break up with club captain Scott Prince, they have just failed to fire.

Sure, injuries have impacted, but then again, injuries hurt every team. Anyone who has watched the Gold Coast perform over the past few seasons would tell you that they are a frustrating football team. They are hit and miss. One day they’re on, the next week they are not. I could sit here and sight reasons such as players being out of form, multiple refereeing decisions have cost them finals appearances; bounce of the ball has not and never goes their way. But excuses mean nothing in what is a performance-based industry.

2014 looms as a potential make or break year for the Titans. Not just the club and its players, but also its Coach, John Cartwright. Cartwright has been at the club since day dot. He is going into his eighth season at the Gold Coast based club. Several finals appearances in his 8-year tenure is far from an attractive look. In fact from a performance perspective, it is unacceptable. The below par results have also started to impact on other areas of the business. Crowds and membership have taken a massive hit, an integral revenue stream, with both slowly declining since 2010.

The Titans also do not have a monopoly on the Gold Coast with the AFL’s very own Gold Coast Suns, being their main competitor, trying to dominate and increase their market share, luring disillusioned Rugby League fans to the Dark Side. Even more reason why success is so crucial for the Titans. The club is up against it.  Thankfully for the Titans, the Suns have yet to set the world on fire themselves, but that is bound to change in the coming seasons with their squad maturing and signing the AFL’s best player in Garry Ablett. And possessing one of our own in Karmichael Hunt. A great strategic move to generate interest and support.

What the Gold Coast also has to contend with is during the period of 1998 and 2007, a whole generation of fan and member was lost to the Titans and the Game leaving many Rugby League folk disgruntled due to no longer having a team of their own. These fans became Brisbane Broncos fans, embraced other NRL teams or lost interest in Rugby League altogether. The Titans admission in 2007, whilst it was welcomed, the lack of fanfare and patriotic support from its community is disturbing. Apart from its diehard legion of fans and members, Skilled Park on most weekends can be a desolate place.

Enter Graham Annansley, former NRL Referee and Chief Operating Officer of the NRL turned NSW Politician. In late 2013, he made the bold move to take on the challenging role of new Chief Executive Officer of the Gold Coast Titans Football Club. A posting that is bound to provide the one time Super League Referees boss many a headache over an extended period. Annasley is already making an impact and leaving his mark, even in his infancy in the role. He has gone through the Titans administration with a broom and has cut out the deadwood, restructuring the business and cutting unnecessary costs, streamlining the organisations and enforcing some much needed accountability from those in the front office, charged with the responsibility of selling the Titans brand to the Gold Coast region. There is a new emphasis on fan engagement, something that has been severely missing from the Titans since their inception. Many clubs and administrators are of the view that all you have to do is plant a football team in a new area with a ‘you beaut’ looking stadium and presto! The people will come.

In a utopian world, yes, in reality, its much more complex than one thinks, especially in an area and region like the Gold Coast. People of all demographics, the community at large need to be won over. Many will say on field success will be enough, because lets face it everyone loves a winner right? But they are wrong. The Titans need to saturate their market, their city. Their brand, their image needs to be everywhere and anywhere all over the Gold Coast, from the Tweed to Tugan. From Broadbeach to Biggera Waters.From the Hinterland to Surfers Paradise esplanade. They need to take ownership of their town, of their metropolis. Give the people a reason to call the Titans their team. The Titans must win the hearts and minds of their community.

Annasley’s appointment is their best signing since 2007. A shrewd administrator who will get the front office in order and heading in the right direction. He has identified the weaknesses and is intent on rectifying them; knowing that the Titans must increase their membership base, increase gate receipts and home ground average and providing value for money with game day experiences. The last competency to complete the revolution is the football team itself to really make them an attractive proposition commercially.

The recruitment of former Nth QLD Cowboys Coach Neil Henry will provide the football department with tremendous experience. Henry brings a tactical nonse that has been missing from the Titans attacking and defensive structure. Coach Cartwright will be hoping his expertise will be able to assist in making his football team a much sharper, diligent and controlled team in 2014. The Titans star signing and recruitment of Jamal Idris turned pear shaped last week with the former representative centre seeking a release, having only played 2 seasons into his 5 year contract. A massive blow for Cartwright’s team and the Titans as Idris brought much more than a strong, intimidating on field presence, his personality off it was just as vital.

But even without Idris, the Titans still boast a highly competitive squad. Good fortune will be needed and the injury Gods to be kind. A young halves pairing still finding their way in the NRL, young, quick outside backs, strong, experienced, seasoned forwards. All the right elements seem to be there. It’s now down to Cartwright to ensure this playing group achieves it potential and meets its own expectations, let alone everyone elses. If the Titans do fail to produce the goods on the field, serious questions need to be asked and some hard decisions will have to be made surrounding the future and longevity of John Cartwright remaining at the helm of the Gold Coast Titans.

Excuses will only go so far, when Cartwright has had what will be a 9 year tenure at the Titans to lay a foundation, build a team, implement structures and pathways for depth and talent to draw upon, and create a culture of success. How long is too long? Brian Smith remained at Parramatta eels for 10 years, although had far more success than what Cartwright has had. Bennett, 21 years at Brisbane. Bellamy 11 years at Melbourne. But unlike Cartwright, all 3 coaches brought success to their respective clubs. Consistent and consecutive finals appearances, Grand Final appearances and Premierships (minus the serial bridesmaid in Smith)

Is 9 years at the helm too long? Has the playing group stopped listening to their coach? Do they need to hear a new voice with new ideas, new concepts, a new philosophy? That’s not for me to say, but there is a strong and ever growing case for change should the Titans once again, fail to deliver. Their fans, members, respective stakeholders need the Titans to be successful. But most importantly the Game needs the Titans to be a success. They are an expansion club. They are apart of the games strategy moving forward into what will eventually become a ‘national’ model, shoring up the Gold Coast community and ensuring it remains very much apart of the Rugby League landscape and heartland.

(Photo source http://resources1.news.com.au/images/2011/07/14/1226094/856697-gold-coast-titans-coach-john-cartwright.jpg)

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Zero tolerance. Taking the hard stance against idiocy #NRL #RugbyLeague

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blake-ferguson-gone-awol-628 (Photo: courtesy of Triple M www.triplem.com.au)

A change has occurred in recent times at Rugby League Central. The establishment of the NRL Integrity Unit has been a major step forward in the way the game deals with controversy and issues that have the potential to bring the game into disrepute. Of late, there has been several incidents that have highlighted the game’s intent to ensure it acts swiftly and in an appropriate manner to deal with cases of misbehavior, misconduct and criminality. The NRL Integrity Unit now investigates a controversial matter, looking into each and every incident with extreme diligence and care, ensuring the right outcome is sought.

Since its creation, the NRL integrity Unit has had to deal with Ben Barba’s controversial off field behavior, the ASADA investigations into peptide, growth hormone and performance enhancing drug use; Josh Dugan’s unfortunate exit from Canberra, Blake Ferguson’s trail of self-destruction; Richard Fa’oso’s off field dispute, Reni Matiua’s indiscretion with a cabbie and the latest headache for the game’s administration former NZ Warriors prop Russell Packer who is now facing a 2 year jail sentence.

Several of these incidents have resulted in the NRL Integrity Unit suspending and de-registered the contracts of players. No longer is the responsibility left to the club to deal with the issues in house. The game has been longing for such a hard lined approach towards individuals that are causing the game, the clubs and their stakeholder’s unnecessary stress, embarrassment and disreputable damage. Gone are the days, where the old slap on the wrist and a stern lecture was the solution, where administrators and coaches would hope and pray that it would be enough to ensure the troubled souls would not step out of line again.

The NRL Integrity Unit has brought about much needed control, regulation and an element of discipline that has been missing from the game’s hierarchy. It has shown its hand and being strong and will make the necessary tough calls that need to be made. Rugby League clubs can no longer protect their wayward individuals. The establishment of the NRL Integrity Unit is enforcing a ‘No Dickhead Policy’ and the early results would suggest it seems to be working. Taking away the luxury of being a professional sports star, the fame, fortunate and privilege is being done so without a second thought and its well overdue.

But doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance? I am sure there is chorus yelling this from the rooftops. I get that people stuff up and make mistakes. We all do. It’s called being human.  It is granted that no one is perfect. However, there’s a line that all professional athletes cannot afford to cross. They’ve got contracts. Multi-million dollar contracts to adhere too, with stipulated obligations, requirements, expectations and responsibilities that they must uphold. With great power, comes even greater responsibility; and something the game has been guilty of far too often, is its inability to be cruel to be kind, when its needed to be most. If you and I acted like clowns and brought shame to our employers, would we expect to turn up on a Monday morning with our job security in tact? I highly doubt it. We would become unwanted statistics to the nation’s growing unemployment.

Remember, we are only talking about a very small percentage of player. A diminutive few. The majority are outstanding athletes and tremendous people. Be it through immaturity, naivety or just plain stupidity. Image has never been so important in professional sport. A strong, positive brand awareness is essential for Rugby League. It has endured its fair share of hits over the years and regardless whether the players want to agree with it or not, they are the product. If they stuff up, it reflects terribly upon the game.  As a whole, society battles with drugs and alcohol, so does sport. Rugby League is not immune to this problem, in fact it is right in the thick of it.

I am not going to go into the specifics of every individual case or incident. Each has been flogged to death with comprehensive media coverage. What I will say though is being a professional athlete, a professional Rugby League player is a privilege. Those that make it that far through natural ability and hard work deserve to reap the rewards, luxuries and perks that come with it. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a talented individual throw it all away with repeated efforts of futility and senselessness.

There is no excuse for poor behaviour. The Game and its respective club invest heavily in welfare and education programs. All clubs now employ welfare managers and mentors to engage with the playing group. All players are provided with information, knowledge and education about the do’s and don’ts. The negative effects of temptations like drugs and alcohol. The world has changed quite significantly from the way it was back in the day. The digital age, the wave and evolution of social media coupled with the professionalism of sport turning the game into a fulltime profession has definitely made things a lot of more challenging for athletes to enjoy themselves.

But what they have to realise is that they have an opportunity to do what many others do not. Play the game they love and get rewarded handsomely for it. Why some may whinge and complain about the restrictions, curfews and other regulations players have to adhere by due to the nature of their profile and status, they must always remember, they are not getting paid like an average 18,  21 or 25 year old. It is a small price to pay to live the dream, leave a legacy, inspire others and set themselves up for life.

Jim Doyle, Chief Operating Officer of the NRL and head of the Integrity Unit is to be commended on his work. Doyle brings great experience and leadership to the game’s governing body. Doyle, former CEO and Chairman of the New Zealand Rugby League Board was recruited by ARL Commission and NRL CEO Dave Smith to strengthen his administrative team. A smart addition, a strategic one at that, with first hand experience in Rugby League, his appointment will prove beneficial in the coming years as Rugby League evolves into the future.

Doyle and the Integrity Unit have so far made all the right moves. No kneejerk reactions, no shooting from the hip which the game’s administration has been guilty of far too often in the past with the reactive nature which was in existence.  “Shoot first, ask questions later” was the system in which the previous administration operated under. Be it in regards to off field player behaviour, salary cap scandals etc. Now there is proper governance. Proper channels. Appropriate steps and a system of investigation like the game has never had, nor seen before. And one thing is for sure, whilst the NRL Integrity Unit is in place, there will be no place for idiocy.

Doyle this week floated the idea of a player good behaviour bond, which would effectively see offending players who have are in breach of their contract through an indiscretion, play a sum of $250,000 good behaviour bond to be allowed to continue to be an active, registered Rugby League player. Just one of many enterprising strategies that Doyle and his team will undoubtedly look further into and look at other alternatives.

So rather than players just being sacked at one club for an off field incident and turning up at another club a few weeks later, they would be forced to fork out a quarter of a million dollars from their hard earned, if they wish to remain registered as a NRL player. However, I am all for setting a strong precedent and sending a strong message to all players in the game that improper behaviour and misconduct will no longer be tolerated. A zero tolerance approach for stupidity if you will, which will preserve Rugby League’s brand, image and reputation as ‘The Greatest Game of All’

Generation Next: A glimpse into the future for the Melbourne Storm #NRL #RugbyLeague #purplepride

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Ben Hampton Kicking (Photo: courtesy of www.melbournestorm.com.au)

News of the meticulous Cooper Cronk being in doubt for the start of Season 2014 sent shock waves through the Melbourne Storm fans and members, broken by Storm Coach Craig Bellamy. The Melbourne mentor spoke to the media and answered questions from the media at Gosch’s Paddock in Melbourne, whilst his troops trained. When asked about the up coming NRL 9’s taking place in Auckland in mid February, Bellamy dropped a less than positive bombshell, breaking the news that two of his big three as they are affectionately touted, will not play in the inaugural tournament.

Billy Slater, as we know, sustained a knee injury during the Rugby League World Cup 2013 campaign and had surgery to clean the knee up and has been enjoying a break after the 8-week tournament in the UK. However, none knew that reigning Dally M Medalist Cooper Cronk would also be sidelined through a shoulder injury he sustained back in June 2013. The Clive Churchill Medalist had nursed and managed it through the rigorous 2013 schedule, which included Premiership Football, an Origin campaign, coupled with Finals and then onto the Rugby League World Cup, where the Australian No.7 had a stellar tournament.

Whilst Cronk will certainly miss the NRL 9’s competition, he is also in extreme doubt to be fit for Melbourne’s Round 1 fixture against Manly. Although, knowing how diligent he is with his training, recovery and rehab, Cooper Cronk will certainly be aiming to defy the odds in lining up against rival and Kangaroos and Maroons team mate, Daly Cherry-Evans in the second week of March.

Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise for Cronk. The Queensland Halfback is known for his tireless work ethic. His relentlessness to work, train, do the extras to make him the player he is, and forever striving to be better has seen him become the game’s number one player. His body is a temple. He abstains from bad food and alcohol. Not even as a treat, believing it will impact negatively upon his game and performance. He lives a wholesome, healthy life that would make some of his colleagues feel guilty.

Since 2012, the man has not stopped. After winning the Premiership with Melbourne, a fortnight later, he played in the Townsville Test match for Australia, before then packing his bags and flying to Arizona with the Brisbane Lions AFL Club for off-season altitude training to take his fitness to a whole new level. Upon return just before Christmas, he willingly returned to Storm training, training right through till February 2013, where Melbourne then flew to England, winning the World Club Challenge against Leeds. An entire season of Premiership Rugby League, including a short lived Finals campaign, State of Origin and a World Cup, the risk of burnout must have been surely imminent.

The shoulder injury, although not knowing the extent of it, comes at an opportune time for Cronk who will for the first time in a long time, have the opportunity to rest the machine that has in the space of 18 months, won a Premiership, an Origin Series and a World Cup. That is an extreme amount of football. Whilst he is a professional athlete, rest and recovery is a vital component of performance. Goodness knows his respective commitments and ruthless training regime he engages in, rest is certainly something Super Cooper deserves and above all requires if the Melbourne Storm is to be at the threatening best in 2014.

However there is a silver lining to Cronk’s potential absence in the early part of Season 2014. It allows Coach Craig Bellamy to unearth two new halves options; two untried, untested rookies; novices if you will, at the First Grade level. For the first time in the Victorian based franchise’s history, Melbourne Storm will they go into a season with a rookie pair of halves. Gone is Gareth Widdop, the English international. Gone is Brett Finch, the ultimate clubman. Enter young Ben Hampton and Cody Walker. Who? Well I don’t think we’ll be saying who for too long once they arrive and make their mark respectively.

Hampton, a young five-eighth from Nth QLD has been in the Storm system for a number of years, graduating from their NYC U/20’s squad, Hampton has represented and captain QLD at the 15’s, 17’s and Under 20’s age group. He has talent and his potential is enormous. Hampton made his debut against the Gold Coast Titans last season, scoring 2 tries on debut. His counterpart, Cody Walker, a pivot that played for the Storm’s QLD Cup Feeder team Brisbane Easts Tigers, took out the club’s player of the year award and also won QLD Cup player of the year in 2013. He was signed by Melbourne and along with Hampton, and may play alongside Cronk throughout Season 2014.

But in the meantime, both men have the opportunity to now feature in Craig Bellamy’s plans of being the halves pairing for their Round 1 fixture, an unexpected opportunity both players will grab with two hands and run with it. Both Hampton and Walker have played together at Brisbane Easts and will be familiar with one another’s game, which will be of a major benefit to the Storm’s attack and structure whilst Cronk is on ice. Hampton 21 and Walker 23, both men could very well be the future of the Melbourne Storm. Throw in Kurt Mann, a young playmaker who will also be in the mix, playing in the Storm’s U/20’s team last year, is also quite crafty with the ball in hand.

Whilst Cronk is far from over the hill, nor nowhere near retirement, the 30 year old still has many more good years left in him, mainly due to treating his body like a sanctuary of health and harmony. However in sport, it is wise to have one eye on the present and another on the future. Succession planning is paramount in a performance-based industry. We often hear talk about Premiership windows and what not. Many would suggest that the Melbourne Storm dynasty is coming to an end. Once in a generation type player in Cronk, Smith and Slater do not come around often and Melbourne have been fortunate and blessed to have 3 of the best players in crucial positions, in the same team, which a lot of the success attained as stemmed from, coupled by a dedicated Coach who has instilled a work ethic at the club, not matched or rivaled at any other sporting organisation in the land.

But just because the ‘Big 3’ might be closer to the end of the careers than at the beginning, does not necessary mean the ‘purple patch’ (pardon the pun) and success has to end. Again, it comes down to smart, strategic management with a strong emphasis on succession planning. I am sure that the brains trust in the front office at Melbourne Storm as well as the Football Operations department is already rolling out the succession plan, which will unearth hopefully the next Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk. Who’s not to say Cody Walker and Ben Hampton are not apart of the Storm’s succession plan? We might be getting a glimpse into the future of the Melbourne Storm going forward. Whilst talent is important to have in any playing group and squad, the Storm have always prided themselves on developing their own, investing in junior talent, instilling them with the work ethic the club is built upon which will forge their future success.

I highly doubt this is the end of a dynasty for Melbourne. In fact, I believe it’s the start of a new one.  In the mean time, the current purple reign and empire is still thundering along. Try telling the likes of Cronk that their time has come to an end. The tradesmen like Halfback will tell you, it’s far from over and a continuation of the dynasty is just about to begin, as is the mentality of the ruthless Melbourne Storm.  ‘Us against them’ – siege mentality, first seen in Rugby League by former Western Suburbs Magpies Coach Roy Masters. Craig Bellamy will again have to tap into this methodology as he and Cronk prove that the Storm is far from over the hill. They haven’t even reached the summit.

The need for expansion. Time put the ‘National’ in the National Rugby League #NRL #RugbyLeague #Expansion #TheGreatestGameOfAll

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This year, Season 2014, the ARL Commission has scheduled an impending update and announcement on the future direction of the game. In 2013 it released its strategic plan, outlining its mission, its goals and objectives and where it wants to be as a sport, as a code in 2017 with its prime objective being a market leader and number one sport in the country. Highly ambitious, but certainly attainable if it gets its house in order and kicks some significant goals along the way.

One of those goals is expansion. At present, there are 16 current NRL licenses held by the clubs. 11 in NSW (9 of which are in Sydney) 3 in Queensland, 1 in Victoria and 1 in New Zealand. These franchises making up what is supposedly a ‘National’ Rugby League competition. Compare that to its competitors. The AFL, was born and bred in Victoria, yet has 2 teams in South Australia, 2 teams in Western Australia, 2 teams in NSW and 2 teams in Queensland. It has managed to cover the entire surface area of the Australian sporting marketplace, whilst still maintaining a traditional presence and stronghold in Victoria.

The A-League; same story. Soccer (or Football as the true believers of the round ball game refer to it as) Football Federation Australia has virtually a presence and national identity in each state, with 2 teams in NSW, 1 in QLD, 2 in Victoria, 1 in Western Australia, 1 in Adelaide and also has a presence in New Zealand. The ARU even has more of a national footprint than what Rugby League does; having a Super 15 franchise in Western Australia, Victoria, NSW and QLD.

For far too long Rugby League has been too eastern seaboard centric. Whilst national expansion has been apart of Rugby League since 1982 and hit new heights in 1995, much of the blamed can be aimed at the Super League war halting this process. The introduction of Nth QLD, Sth QLD, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne was starting to give the game that national look and feel it has longed for. Just when the newly formed NRL back in 1997 and made its intentions clear about rationalizing the competition, it made some hard decisions, including forcing traditional foundation clubs to form Joint Ventures or perish in order to attain tis national look and profile.

Yet 16 years on, instead of having a 12 or 14 team competition, the game has 16 licensed clubs. And with expansion on the lips on the game’s administrators once again, that number is only set to increase to potentially to 18.  So what’s so incredibly wrong with that I can hear many saying? History shows that it is not sustainable. Clubs struggled to make ends meet in a saturated market place 15-20 years ago. It’s only more competitive and cutthroat in today’s current commercial and economic climate where every dollar for revenue counts and could be the different between solvency or financial collapse.

So what happens next? That’s anyone’s guess really. ARL Commission and NRL CEO David Smith is on record, stating that come 2017, if clubs are not self sufficient and sustainable, there will be no financial handouts. It’s either survive on your own two feet or shut up shop. I for one commend the NRL’s administration on such a stance. Last time I checked it is 2014, not 1914. Clubs are now million dollar enterprises. Professional business acumen and shrewdness is necessary to survive in what is a merciless industry.

Why merciless? Think back to 1998 and 1999, heck think further back to 1983. Kicking out or killing off clubs has been done in the past without a flinch or flicker of emotion.  Foundation Clubs in Newtown, North Sydney, Balmain and Western Suburbs were all put to sleep. Expansion teams in the Gold Coast, Adelaide, Sth QLD and Perth were also laid to rest (or became sacrificial lambs as a compromise) There is no room for sentiment in Rugby League or in sport for that matter.  This demonstrates the business mentality and environment Rugby League finds itself in. It is a commodity, a product and its purpose is to provide the best entertainment in sport.

Rugby League has been stuck in neutral for far too long. Its past demonstrates it has the ability to make the tough calls. The hard decisions. Short term pain for long term gain. And it must once again utilise this mindset, attitude and approach if the game is to grow, prosper and achieve its potential and indeed, its vision and mission as a true market leader and venturing onto new horizons.

The Game needs to spread its wings. It needs to live up to its name, its brand, its trademark of being a National Rugby League competition. To do this, it needs to cut the apron strings and infatuation with its Sydney roots. Sydney will always be the historical and traditional heartland and home of the game. It’s where the game was born; where it was founded and where it will always have representation and a presence. But can Rugby League put the N in NRL by continuing to have 9 Sydney based clubs competing in what is a National competition? Personally, I do not think it is possible, nor feasible.

Queensland states claim for currently being the Rugby League capital of not only Australia, but the world. It’s dominance in Origin, which has filtered into the national team; its junior nursery and development pathways; its fanfare and unwavering support, coupled by its several existing licensed franchises, it is calling out for yet another team in QLD and rightly so. The demographics can support another side in the sunshine state. Where that is to be, will come down to where the ARL Commission sees and believes will fit best. There’s a strong case for an additional team in Brisbane to end the Broncos monopoly, whilst a Central QLD team would virtually see a team in each part of the state from Townsville right down to the Gold Coast.

Perth is another consortium that is campaigning hard to win back a licence in the NRL. Last played in the top tier in 1997, the decision to cull the Perth Reds was an extremely poor decision and a big boo boo by the then games powerbrokers and administrators. The demographics, stats and data suggested long-term success for a Western Australian Rugby League team. 17 years on, who knows where and what the Perth Reds might have become? Instead Rugby League gave up market share to its rivals to capitalise upon. AFL, Rugby Union and Football all have a presence in Western Australia. The ARL Commission and NRL can ill afford to not to make another huge mistake and dismiss their bid to join the NRL.

Whilst there are other respective expansion bids, namely in the embattled Central Coast Bears consortium, the Wellington Orcas and Ipswich. The games administrators needs to think long and hard about the strategic benefits of expansion and what are the right moves, the right regions to expand into.  Whilst another team in NZ would help increase the brand and profile of the game and challenge the Warriors, the NZ Warriors are playing their part in spreading the gospel, taking home games outside of Auckland, to Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The success of the NZ Kiwis since 2008 has also seen interest and participation grow quite significantly and the game is the fastest growing sport in the country.

As for the Central Coast Bears, a consortium that has had public backing and significant support from millionaire and media tycoon John Singleton, it seems the Bears will remain in hibernation which is disappointing for the Central Coast population and old North Sydney fans, but logistics and factors out of their control will harm their cause. Being 90 minutes away from Sydney and a stone’s throw away from the Newcastle Knights, along with being yet another team in NSW along the eastern seaboard, their bid seems considerably weak comparing that to Western Australia and one of the Queensland consortiums.

The ARL Commission must deliver on its vision. It must attain its mission, its goals and objectives of becoming a true national product. Expansion is apart of that process. Sentiment and emotion must be put aside when the decision is made. The commissioners along with CEO Dave Smith and his management team must think strategically, but also laterally about expansion and what will be the best fit, the best way forward that the game will benefit from in regards to market penetration, commercial opportunities, broadcasting benefits and membership. If the decision fulfills such a criteria which will take the game forward, then I solemnly believe, we will be one step closer to that ‘N’ in NRL, standing for a true representation of a National Rugby League competition.