I am known at my workplace as a mad AFL supporter – there has been no inconsiderable teasing and quips at my workplace from rusted on NRL fans. It’s not exclusively single minded in my workplace, however. One of my colleagues was born and bred a Norths supporter. The day when North Sydney was punted from the NRL, he switched to the Sydney Swans and is a member of the club. When Norths start up at Gosford, he says, he will walk away from the Swans and take up a membership in Gosford. It’s an admirable attitude. For this reason and others, my personal preference for AFL doesn’t mean that I loathe rugby league and want it to wither on the vine. To the contrary, I believe rugby league is one of the great sports of NSW and Queensland and in that it has a proud tradition of being an integral part of the cultural life of the states. To me, it’s a week to week clash of the regions, it’s not the Channel 9 coverage, not the massive poker machine profits, not the bloated and boganised State of Origin matches, with its ridiculous maxtreme coverage.
A great strength of rugby league lays in its relationship with the regions connected to various clubs. Areas of Sydney gain confidence and joy from the performance of their team. I never forget the joy experienced in Penrith when the Panthers won their first Premiership in 1991. There is also something relaxed and happy about a game played at Penrith Park (I refuse to call it the other name), where locals turn up and form a tight community for the game. This is something we don’t see as much with the AFL, whose Melbourne clubs are all inner city and whose games are all played at two Melbourne city grounds. The NRL and its clubs, however, seem to be losing this connection to the regions and treating some of its areas for granted.
An example of this is the way the Balmain – Western Suburbs merger has played out. Mergers are always tricky affairs, often with one side of the merger losing out on power and games. The Brisbane – Fitzroy “merger” being a case in point. The St. George – Illawarra merger seems to have played fairly well, with an almost even split of games between Wollongong and Kogarah and with a healthy respect for developing the junior competitions in the Illawarra. For fans, it isn’t a huge impost getting from Wollongong to Kogarah and vice versa. This is not the case with Balmain and Wests. The club’s power base are Balmain and the decisions made do seem to many to be made with Balmain in mind, rather than Campbelltown. For a start, the venues they play their games in are a dog’s breakfast, split between Campbelltown, Leichhardt Oval and the Sydney Football Stadium at Moore Park. This means effectively that the Campbelltown Stadium – a modern, NRL standard stadium built with Campbelltown Council money, is home to only 4 NRL games per season. For the rest of the time, it would be hard to blame the fans for preferring to just stay at home than battle Sydney’s traffic or the public transport mire out to Leichhardt and to the SFS for 8 of the games. Such a move acts to emphasise the inner city / outer suburban divide in the club.
There isn’t just this concern, however. There are more structural problems related to the running of a Balmain – Campbelltown rugby league club. Currently, the club works as two teams – Balmain Tigers and Western Suburbs Magpies, at all levels except the NRL team. This includes two NSW Cup (reserve grade) teams. The advantage for the club to continue to run this structure is that there are a large number of young league players in Campbelltown and Liverpool, itching to play for Wests. However, according to the blog of Wests’ supporter Daniel Watson Hayes, there are plans to end this structure. He outlines issues relating to “dramas” relating to Campbelltown and Liverpool Senior competitions, leading to teams within those regions leaving to go to bordering areas ; “punishment” for teams that attempt change within existing management structures ; suggestions that the Balmain side of the club want to combine the NSW Cup and junior teams so they train in Concord – making it hard for parents to transport their children as well as weakening the Campbelltown input into the merged club. He is going so far as to organise a rally on February 5 in order to voice these concerns. They are significant concerns, as in the current situation, the Campbelltown end of the joint venture is getting short shrift.
Hayes also mentions the threat many perceive from the AFL in claiming “The situations we have at hand has gotten to a stage that if we don’t act soon, we will lose much support of our great game of Rugby League. We will lose it to other, better run football codes that have a strategic long term approach to winning the hearts and minds of this thriving area”. There is some truth to this, in that the AFL have been making a significant push into school and junior football development in the Campbelltown and Liverpool areas. There is an Auskick program conducted with Year 7 students in many schools, as well as inter school competitions, where referees and other assistants are supplied. The Giants have also displayed the willingness to have their players visit schools in the region. The Wests Tigers (clubs in the NRL operate largely independently, unlike the AFL, which operates as a single organisation) do not offer the same level of support in schools and are harder to approach in terms of supplying players for school visits. The junior competitions are also developing, with money spent on newly developed and improved grounds reserved just for AFL, while league grounds are often left pockmarked and dusty in those same areas. There is also a growing perception amongst parents that AFL is a safer game for their children, with its emphasis on athletic skills – running, catching, kicking as well as tackling, rather than tackling and a bit of running.
It need not be a case of rugby league losing the support of parents and children, however. There is still a great love of the game in the areas. Modifications have already been made to the game for juniors to make it more safe, especially in the area of making the division weight based, instead of age based. There is, however, the indicated need for a better way to run the competitions currently in the regions – so that everyone feels happy and satisfied with the way the games and competitions are run. The reality is that league should still be the No.1 game in these areas and AFL should be around as a viable alternative. It is possible to support both codes – go to the games for one code, watch the other on TV.
The solution for the NRL should be simple. There is no reason Campbelltown can’t have its own standalone team once again. The area has grown in wealth and population considerably since the Magpies merged with the Tigers. The stadium is also considerably better than the dusty bowl of the past. It is as much a rugby league heartland as much as Penrith, Canterbury or Parramatta. While they are about it, they should really be more supportive of the push to restart the Bears in the Central Coast. It is another area with an excellent stadium and ready made supporter base. They really are the sort of areas the NRL need to be treating with more respect and nurturing, insofar that they continue to be rugby league areas for the generations to come.
In the case of the Magpies, the NRL probably won’t do that. They should, however, listen to the concerns of fans such as Hayes and be moving heaven and earth – as in, supply its own money – to keep the Western Suburbs club as a viable option at junior and NSW Cup level. But still introduce the Central Coast Bears. Having a standalone Campbelltown or Central Coast team would not be so good for Channel 9 and Foxtel, who would rather have new clubs that would enable more penetration into new areas. The NRL, however, should be considering its own long term viability as well. They should consider what would be good for the game. Give juniors and their parents in the massive Central Coast and Macarthur regions a local club in a national competition. That is something the AFL will never do. Even though soccer has managed to supply the Central Coast a club to follow, it is a summer competition and will only ever be second to the NRL in that region. If the NRL continue to ignore the needs of these areas, it really will have something to worry about – fans of the next generation not developing a great emotional connection to the game.