Friday night’s South Sydney-Brisbane clash at Perth’s NIB Stadium is not an automatic pre-cursor of a new NRL franchise in Western Australia, but it will provide an important litmus test for the game’s expansion.
The appearance of a number of the NRL’s biggest names including Darren Lockyer, Greg Inglis, Justin Hodges and Sam Thaiday has raised expectations of a crowd in excess of 20,000 which would confirm Perth’s favouritism as front-runners for expansion in 2015.
NRL boss David Gallop earmarked 2015 as the most likely year that the premiership would expand beyond its present 16 teams, dashing the hopes of a number of consortiums for entry to the NRL within two years.
“Personally I would have thought we would get to 18 teams by 2015,” Gallop said earlier this week.
“It might come earlier but we should be giving our existing clubs a couple of years with the new television money to get themselves stable before we introduce new teams into the competition.”
Despite the delay, Perth remains the favoured location for a new team, Gallop telling a lunch in Perth last year the bid by the WARL “has a big advantage because it gives us a presence for our sponsors in a big capital city that we don’t otherwise have. In terms of the financial stability, the facilities, the time slot advantage and the expat population keen to get a rugby league team, then Perth is a frontrunner.”
This week’s appearance by the Rabbitohs is their third in the Western Australian capital since 2009, and so far they have attracted crowds of 15,197 and 13,164 for successive clashes against the Melbourne Storm.
The NRL has made only sporadic missions to Perth since the Western Reds were eliminated from the competition in 1997. The Reds were established in 1995 and had begun to gain a foothold when they became one of the biggest casualties of the game’s destructive Super League war.
The Melbourne Storm and Western Suburbs returned to the west to play at Lathlain Oval in Perth’s inner-east in 1999 but it was six years before another NRL match was staged in WA. Cronulla and the Warriors played before a 13,000-crowd at Perth Oval in 2005.
The 13-a-side code has a proud history in Perth dating back to 1948 when four clubs (Perth, Fremantle, South Perth and Cottesloe) began competition. Former Kangaroo hooker Arthur Folwell played an important role in coaching the new outfits and he returned in 1950 to help propagate the game in the schools.
Balmain was the first Sydney club to travel to Perth, playing a series of matches against combined outfits in 1949 and the following year the touring Great Britain side became the first international outfit to play there.
Their clash with the foundling Western Australian state side was one of the great miss-matches, as local newspaper the Western Mail recorded: “It doubtless looked to the casual observer rather like pitting a child against a grown man in the boxing ring. And, of course, it really was very much like that.” The tourists took only a matter of minutes to open their account and by fulltime the exhausted scoreboard operator displayed an 87-4 win to the visitors. Wigan winger Jack Hilton ran in seven tries while captain Ernest Ward registered 33 personal points from three tries and 12 goals.
France toured a year later and played before an encouraging crowd of 14,500 as they ran up an only slightly less lopsided score of 70-23. They returned in 1955 and Great Britain came back in 1958, playing the state side in the first rugby league game at the WACA Ground.
International teams continued to visit in the 1960s and 1970s and Sydney club sides made occasional end-of-season sorties to the west but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the NSWRL got serious about an expansionary push into Western Australia.
Their interest was piqued by a Panasonic Cup match between Balmain and Parramatta at the WACA in 1989 which drew a bumper crowd of almost 25,000. Canberra and Canterbury flew west later the same season, playing the first ever premiership match in Perth in front of a crowd of over 22,000.
For the next five years at least one premiership game per year was played in Perth ahead of the Western Reds’ arrival in 1995. The Reds, comprising talent drawn almost exclusively from the eastern states, performed creditably in their three seasons, finishing 11th (of 20), 16th (of 20) and eighth (of 10) in Super League. Their crowds averaged over 13,000 in their first season but dipped below 9,000 as the Super League war dragged on.
Should the west be given a second opportunity to play in an expanded competition they can expect to be established on a far more solid footing. Already Reds junior teams are competing in east coast competitions at SG Ball and Bundaberg Red Cup levels and there is no shortage of interested corporate support in the west. And perhaps their biggest trump card is the timeslot advantage which has television networks interested in beaming live matches into Sydney and Brisbane markets at 9.30pm on Friday or Saturday nights.