The Tongan revolution didn’t happen overnight or by accident, and the game needs more long-term investment and strategic decision making, according to one of the code’s most experienced officials.
South Sydney general manager of football Shane Richardson says officials should decide the future direction of the game before entering into negotiations for the next broadcast deal rather than focus on what will earn the most money.
He also believes the NZRL deserves an annual funding grant similar to the NSWRL and QRL.
After a week in which the excitement of Tonga’s continued rise and Toronto Wolfpack’s stunning recruitment of Sonny Bill Williams was tempered by the conclusion of an underwhelming Great Britain Lions tour to New Zealand, he believes international football is a massive growth area for the game.
Richardson has called for
- A reduction in the number of NRL matches to 22 rounds;
- All three State of Origins to be standalone events;
- The establishment of a World 9s circuit, and;
- A detailed international schedule.
"International football is the final piece of the puzzle," Richardson said.
"There are four pieces of the game to sell - not one - and it is not all about the NRL.
"In my opinion, the NRL should be 22 rounds, three standalone State of Origins, a wonderful Nines competition played around the world and on top of that you have international football.
"With less fixtures you would have better quality of players playing less games but playing value-added games.
"Our major competitor [AFL] doesn’t have international football and they don’t have Nines but what we can’t do is just add them on, we have to have a plan."
Richardson was referring to decisions like last year’s Denver Test between England and New Zealand or the RFL announcing the first Lions tour in 13 years before the details of opponents and venues had been confirmed.
"It’s not about making money, it’s about growing the game," he said.
As an example, Richardson points to the NRL’s investment in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga with the introduction of the annual Pacific Test concept in 2013.
The NRL has funded the mid-season Tests for the past seven seasons and Tonga is now an international powerhouse with a massive following, while some are hailing last weekend’s Fiji-PNG Test in Christchurch as the best of 2019.
In contrast, the Kiwis played England in Denver last year rather than capitalise on the interest generated by Tonga’s performance at the World Cup because the NZRL needed the $1 million offered by Moore Sports for the three-year deal.
After each being left $300,000 out of pocket after the Test at Mile High Stadium, the NZRL and Britain’s RFL decided not to return this year and the Kiwis have just hosted a two-Test series against the Lions, who also played Tonga in Hamilton.
With Great Britain losing all three Tests, questions are now being asked about the purpose of the tour and Wayne Bennett’s future as England coach, while support for the Kiwis at home has been overshadowed by Tonga’s "sea of red".
"This constant idea of putting Test matches and tours on for financial returns because of desperation is not the way to go," Richardson said.
"You have got to map fixtures out and grow them. Australia and the NRL have done a great job of doing that with the Pacific Tests. Tonga didn’t just happen, it happened because of those games and players then deciding they wanted to play for their country.
"That is the way you grow international football, not just by putting Test matches on for the sake of it and then when you lose a fortune the whole game is under threat."
In total, six Oceania Cup and Lions Tests were played in New Zealand over the past three weeks but having the two events running simultaneously caused confusion among fans - some of whom questioned why there was no final.
Richardson believes the NZRL should receive funding from NRL - like the NSWRL and QRL - in recognition of New Zealand’s importance to the game and the number of players they produce for the Telstra Premiership.
"Even if we gave them half as much money it would still be better than what they get at the moment and they wouldn’t have to worry about putting Test matches on just for the sake of needing money," he said.
"You can’t have a series every year where New Zealand stares down the barrel of bankruptcy if it is not successful."
The former Cronulla, Penrith and Souths CEO had a stint at the NRL as head of game strategy and development in 2015 and implemented changes such as an increase in the size of club rosters from 25 to 36, including six rookies, and restructuring the National Youth Competition to state-based Under 20s competitions.
He also proposed a formal international window and revamping the NSW Cup to spread the footprint of the competition into all the areas that play the game.
Richardson believes the international game should be profitable and he is adamant a World 9s circuit with non-NRL and Super League players would be successful while also helping to develop the code in new markets.
"Imagine [PNG winger] Edene Gebbie playing Nines, he would be unstoppable. Or Semi Radradra. You could have all sorts of people playing Nines," Richardson said.
"We could create a Nines competition played all around the world and you wouldn’t have to have NRL players to do it.
"I think we completely underestimate some of the things we have got because we go to negotiations with television or other areas without a plan of what we want the game to look like.
"We should say this is our plan for the next five years and we want you to come on as partners. We have got a wonderful product but we have got to have a plan in place to capitalise on it."
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.