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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Tim Harcourt, Industry Professor and Chief Economist, University of Technology Sydney

This year the National Rugby League (NRL) opened its season in Las Vegas. It was an audacious move by the league’s ambitious head honcho Peter V’Landys to showcase the game in the United States – and perhaps to attract some gambling industry attention too.

While the NRL was stateside, the Australian Football League (AFL) opened its 2024 season in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland – rugby league heartland.

The battle between the NRL and AFL for football supremacy has always been intriguing – where is the battle headed next?

A history of expansion

In terms of football participation and support, Australia is divided by a “Barassi line” between the north-east and south-west of the country.

Both codes have expanded over the years. It started in 1982 when the then-Victorian Football League sent the South Melbourne Swans to Sydney and the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) established the Canberra Raiders (making the ACT a rugby league stronghold rather than the predominantly Aussie rules city it originally was).

The NSWRL added teams in Newcastle, Illawarra, Brisbane, Melbourne and Gold Coast, and later Auckland and North Queensland. The AFL added sides from WA and SA, as well as Brisbane and Gold Coast and later, Greater Western Sydney. Tasmania will soon become the 19th club, and the AFL may ponder a 20th team – in Darwin, Canberra or perhaps a third club in WA or SA.

Read more:
Darwin Dingoes, Canberra Capitals, Cairns Crocodiles? Weighing up the options for the AFL’s 20th team

In 2023, the NRL expanded to 17 clubs with the addition of the Redcliffe Dolphins and the league is considering further expansion – V’Landy’s has stated he would like to see 20 teams by the end of the decade.

So where might future sides be based?

Resurrecting the Bears

The first option is the resurrection of the North Sydney Bears – but in a different location. The old Sydney club exited the NRL in 1999 after 90 years in the premier competition, but V’Landys has ruled they won’t be based at North Sydney as there are too many clubs in that city.

Some have therefore suggested the Bears relocate to the Central Coast, given that area is rugby league heartland and boasts a great stadium in Gosford where NRL fixtures regularly attract good crowds.

There’s also a proposal to bring back the club as the Perth Bears. WA did have the Western Reds in the mid-90s but the team was axed at the end of the Super League war in 1997.

But with the demise of the Western Force in rugby union in 2017, there’s room in the growing sports marketplace of Perth.

The Perth Bears would be a rare foray for the NRL on the other sides of the Barassi line, but they would have the advantage of an historic North Sydney connection – although Sydney fans would find it easier to see their side on the Central Coast, an hour or two away, than on the other side of the Nullarbor Plain.

Exploring New Zealand

The second option is New Zealand.

Given the popularity of the Auckland-based Warriors, there is a push for a second team, either in Wellington, as the Orcas, or Christchurch, to be known as the South Island Kea.

In New Zealand, rugby union talent is spread through the many local provincial sides and ultimately, the All Blacks. But rugby league talent flows through to only the Warriors. Given the growth in popularity of rugby league (particularly among Maori and Pacific youth) the Warriors may not be able to accommodate all the athletes who want to stay in NZ and still play at the highest level.

While rugby league is traditionally strongest on the north island, hence the push for Wellington, there is an opportunity to open up the South Island with a Christchurch team playing at the new covered multi-function stadium.

A bold new horizon up north

The third and most interesting option is Papua New Guinea.

Rugby league is the most popular sport in PNG and Prime Minister James Marape describes the sport as part of a national project to “unite the most diverse nation on the face of the planet.”

The sport is seen as a tool to help fight crime and inter-tribal tensions in the country, with Australia providing A$600 million over 10 years in technical assistance to the bid.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese sees sport as an important part of the bilateral relationship between Australia and PNG. In a
speech to the PNG parliament last year he said:

I want to see a PNG-based team competing in the national rugby league competition.

The PNG bid is part of “soft diplomacy” or “sports diplomacy” in the Pacific in response to geo-political tensions in the region.

A rugby league team is regarded as something the Chinese Communist Party can’t give PNG, similar to the expansion of rugby union teams in Fiji and the rest of the Pacific.

The benefits are economic and diplomatic but there are risks too – there have been warnings that safety and security concerns in PNG could affect players, fans, officials and support staff.

There is also a view the NRL bid may crowd out other development assistance that’s of vital importance to PNG, although this ignores the economic and social flow-on benefits of sporting participation.

The NRL is considering a pitch for a team to be based in PNG.

A fourth option closer to home

Finally, there could be another team in Brisbane, based around the Ipswich area.

The Ipswich Jets only marginally lost out to the Redcliffe Dolphins in the race to become Brisbane’s second NRL club. The bid included a new stadium of 20,500 capacity.

Given the growth of Brisbane and South East Queensland, and the popularity of rugby league in the area, the Ipswich or Brisbane Jets may be a safe option. It would however be more of a consolidation than expansion option, as it would mean three teams in greater Brisbane and five in Queensland in total.

The NRL’s big decisions

The NRL currently has 17 clubs and like the AFL, wants to get to a 20-team competition.

The Central Coast Bears would be a safe option, along with a second team in NZ and another in Ipswich. That would be sticking safely to rugby league territory.

A more radical (but exciting) approach would be to bring the Bears back in Perth, go for a PNG club and a second New Zealand team.

It’s a big decision for the NRL but knowing the drive and political instincts of V’Landys, something is going to happen, and happen soon.

The Conversation

Tim Harcourt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Rugby league in Perth and Papua New Guinea? Here’s what could be next for the NRL –