Challenges and opportunities for WA rugby league
"It will cost $25 million to run an NRL team out of Perth. At the moment, we're $25 million short."
That's NRL Western Australia's president Bob Cronin on the immediate likelihood of getting a profes-sional rugby league team on Australia's west coast. But on the eve of a historic Rugby League World Cup double-header featuring Ireland, Wales, England, and France on Sunday, there's also a lot to like about the state of the game over here.
"We should keep that as our long-term goal, but focus on what we can do: grow the game in WA," Cronin said.
"We've got a team in the SG Ball competition. Our short-term goal is to have an under-20s side. That in itself will cost a million dollars. But I reckon we'll do that in a couple of years."
John Sackson, NRL WA's chief executive, reiterates this message and is clear on the priorities.
"We need to build pathways," he said.
"We've got plenty of fantastic talent in this state, and we've produced players like Curtis Rona, Waqa Blake, the Goodwin brothers. What we're finding is the SG Ball competition has provided us with somewhat of a pathway for us in the last seven or eight years."
Another indication of their talent is Western Australia have won the Affiliated States Championship for the last eight years in a row. Keeping talent remains an issue.
"Every year we are losing our most talented players that over the years go into the under-20s competi-tion, Cairns, Toowoomba, Canberra - to go to a higher level of rugby league, which is problematic for us," Sackson said.
"Ideally you'd love those players to stay in the local competition and enhance it."
It's not all gloomy. Sackson says the NRL has added two more development officers (now totaling five) and counts the major upcoming events as an indication of the state's rugby league potential.
"There's a lot of really good things that are going in here which reflect that the NRL really are prioritis-ing the WA marketplace," he said.
"As an example of this, consider the events coming into Perth. The Rugby League World Cup, (NRL) Round 1, 2018 at the new Optus Stadium (Storm v Bulldogs and Rabbitohs v Warriors). State of Origin Game 2, 2019 is another wonderful event.
"We treat these events as magnificent opportunities to put a spotlight on the game and try to generate added interest. We try to harness that as best we can through media activities, clubs and community and government.
"We're out there working with our clubs and appealing to them to lift their governance, which enhanc-es the ability to recruit and retain players. That's a challenge for the whole game."
There are some great news stories coming out of Western Australian rugby league too.
The NRL Footy Facilities Fund contributed $200,000 to the City of Mandurah to upgrade the facilities at the Ocean Road Sports Reserve, which will be the new home of the Mandurah Storm Junior RLC.
There's a steady influx of players, coaches, and referees from touch football backgrounds which has helped. A recent example is Alison Watters who will officiate in the Women's Rugby League World Cup.
What about the demise of the Western Force? Will that help or hinder the growth of rugby league in WA?
"It will help, but we're not dancing on their grave," Cronin said.
"There'll probably be some drift. A huge attraction for kids - that pathway - is now gone.
"Kids who would have preferred to play rugby league but saw a better pathway in union will now say 'I'd rather play rugby league anyway."