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One of rugby league's greatest assets during the uncertain and unsettling 2020 season was its ability to think outside the square and to see possibilities where other sports saw only peril.

With doubt swirling and the game's very existence under threat, Project Apollo emerged as a beacon of hope and eventually we returned to the field earlier than anyone thought possible on May 28, 2020.

As we move towards the first anniversary of that momentous day, it's perhaps fitting the NRL starts a conversation about a conference system that would revolutionise the game and potentially give us an American-style Super Bowl at the end of a season.

Right now, it's worth remembering that is nothing more than a conversation and any potential competition restructure is several years away. But why not kick the concept around with the game's stakeholders and gauge reaction?

"All these proposals are designed to look at how you grow the game," ARL Commissioner Peter Beattie said this week.

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"This is a really competitive environment, sport - often it's not seen that way, but it is and we know that. We've got to be at the cutting edge of doing this. We've got new media deals coming up from 2023.

"Rugby league is now in a new phase in its life and that's to be the most innovative sport in Australia and one of the most innovative sports in the world and we're determined to do that."

A willingness to innovate is what set the NRL apart as we climbed off the canvas from the COVID-enforced shutdown.

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New rules have given us a faster game and a spectacle as good as any on the world sporting landscape.

So how does the game keep evolving from here?

Welcoming a new team in Brisbane is the first step, and that is expected to happen in 2023. Then a second New Zealand team or perhaps a team in Perth would get us to 18 teams and allow for the formation of two nine-team conferences.

One conference would contain the Sydney-based clubs - Roosters, Bulldogs, Eels, Panthers, Dragons, Wests Tigers, Sharks, Sea Eagles and Rabbitohs.

The Telstra Premiership's second conference would consist of the Broncos, Titans, Cowboys, Raiders, Storm, Knights, Warriors and the two new franchises.

Across a 25-game season every club would play the teams in their conference twice and those in the other conference once.

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As it stands at the moment, we have debate every year about who plays who once and who plays who twice and whether some teams are being disadvantaged.

Pulling the NRL draw together is not a job many would put their hand up for because it's impossible to please every club and every fan base.

The conference system eliminates all those arguments and offers up the prospect of traditional rivalries in Sydney twice a year, locked and loaded, as well as a double dose of the Broncos taking on a new Brisbane team and the Warriors going toe-to-toe with a new Kiwi franchise if that's where an 18th team lands.

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Nine games of NRL every weekend is a win for fans and also broadcasters, with 33 more matches across the regular season and finals games running across both conferences before two blockbuster conference grand finals and the potential for a "Super Bowl" style grand final featuring the conference winners to round out the season.

Some will lament the fact that the season decider could never feature two Sydney teams under a conference system but who could forget the mighty spectacle of the 2015 grand final when Brisbane and North Queensland produced an epic showdown in front of a heaving crowd in Sydney.

As it stands, fans of the nine Sydney clubs have to battle 15 rivals for a premiership. Under a conference system they would only have to get past eight other sides to make it all the way to the Big Dance.

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And while we're on the subject of a Super Bowl-style grand final, perhaps the ARL Commission could look at taking the game around to a different city every year and make it a week-long celebration of our game.

Imagine the atmosphere at the MCG if the Storm were playing against the Eels in the decider.

Or the Broncos and Rabbitohs were squaring off at Suncorp Stadium in our showpiece game.

The possibilities are endless and, at the end of the day, we've got nothing to lose by talking about a revolution.


The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.


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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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