New NT stadium a boost for Top End rugby league
ARL Commission chairman Peter Beattie says the Northern Territory's new $25 million dedicated rugby league stadium will bring more elite level games to the Top End with possible financial incentives on offer from League Central.
Beattie toured the NT government's new Warren Park sports facility along with territory treasurer Nicole Manison in the lead-up to Saturday's Parramatta-North Queensland clash, which doubles as Johnathan Thurston's farewell to the strong Cowboys support base in Darwin.
With the purpose-built rugby league facility scheduled for completion in April 2019 and the Eels committed to bringing a first grade fixture there next season, NRL NT are confident the new venue will host its first top flight game this time next year.
Officials are confident of a 13,000-capacity crowd for Saturday's match next door at the oval-shaped TIO Stadium, building on the territory's increasing participation numbers and successful hosting of last year's World Cup quarter-final between Australia and Samoa.
Parramatta currently has an option in their partnership with the NT government to play a 2020 game in the territory that will be decided upon next year, with a pre-season trial in Alice Springs also on the cards in early 2019.
With first-class training and corporate facilities and temporary seating that can match the capacity of TIO Stadium, Beattie declared the Warren Park facility proved a significant bargaining chip – along with potential NRL support – for more top level league in the tropics.
"What we're doing is developing a national game. The reason I'm here is because this new facility sends a powerful signal to anyone who wants to play rugby league, that this is the place to play it," Beattie said on Friday.
"When this facility's finished at the start of next year we're in a great negotiating position.
"When you've got a new facility, a new grandstand, you are more likely to get teams. Teams don't like playing in second-rate facilities.
"We negotiate every year we negotiate the terms and of course we do what we can to be supportive. The fact I'm here indicates our keen interest in this. We are committed and that's the reason I'm here, to say exactly that."
Participation numbers point to a strong take-up of the game up north, with a five per cent year-on-year growth in recent years, highlighted by almost 30 per cent more women (now at 458 participants) playing rugby league in 2017.
NRL NT's general manager Nigel Roy, of North Sydney Bears and Illawarra Steelers renown in the 90s, highlighted rugby league's rise in the Top End.
"Rugby league's always had a very good traditional base in the Northern Territory," Nigel Roy said.
"It's got a long history dating back to the early days in Darwin, and that's continued through.
"Over the last five years we've seen a growth of five per cent every year to take us up to a good strong competition base of over 2,500 participants in the NT."
Current Australian, Queensland and Storm centre Will Chambers headlines the territory's rugby league exports, along with Jillaroos star Meg Ward, who travels three hours each way from Katherine to play in the NRL NT women’s premiership.
Former NSW Origin flyer James McManus is also still running around in the territory's first-grade competition, as is ex-Rabbitohs and Eels half Luke Kelly.
There has been varying levels of opposition to both the location and design of the new stadium from local clubs since its announcement in mid-2016, to the point where a breakaway competition has been threatened over concerns around the lease arrangements and compliancy issues.
The NT government's $25 million commitment to a rugby league stadium brings it into line with the first-rate facilities at the AFL-stronghold of TIO Stadium, as well as respective $16 million and $18 million outlays on new tennis and netball venues in the Marrara precinct.