Rugby league people in general are not prone to optimism. The game has, since 1895 in England and 1908 in Australia, been one for the battler, the little guy striving to get ahead and do things on their own terms. Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), then, finds itself in an unusual position. It seems, on the surface at least, to be in a position of health that few rugby league organizations have ever found themselves in.
Last year, in a year that every sporting league in the world might stick down as one of their worst ever, they did pretty bloody well for themselves. Australia in general has done better to deal with the pandemic than most, and the NRL reaped the benefits of that.
They were one of the first leagues globally to resume play after lockdown and enjoyed a huge ratings boost as a result. They managed to have minimal COVID-induced incidents among the players, and even fewer of the off-field behavior issues that have dogged their reputation. By the end of the season, they were even playing to a full capacity crowd.
The NRL finds itself in rarified air. The other major football codes in Australia took a pummeling: rugby union is now so far behind rugby league in the popular consciousness that it barely registers, while Aussie Rules (AFL) had a far more disrupted season, missing a bigger chunk of their games and then having to relocate away from their heartlands in Victoria. Soccer might have surpassed rugby union, but it’s nowhere near the NRL or the AFL.
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There’s even a Rugby League World Cup to look forward to at the end of the season, presuming that England has sufficiently recovered to be able to host it. With more international exposure comes the opportunity to grow the game more than ever: rugby league like almost no other sport generates shareable moments, the elusive “snackable content” so beloved of social media, whether it be huge hits, spectacular tries or heartwarming triumphs against adversity. The sport itself is a heartwarming triumph against adversity.
That’s just off the park: on it, the field is as open as it has been for years. Rules were tinkered with during the lockdown and produced a faster, slicker product, and thus were tinkered with again in the off-season in an attempt to double down on the new style of play. The betting market for this year’s champions says it all: there is, for the first time in years, no clear favorite. The potential for drama is obvious.
Of course, this sort of thing makes people worry. We’re one sex scandal, one positive COVID test, one nightclub brawl away from disaster. It says a lot about the NRL’s previous off-seasons that this one might be considered relatively benign when three headline stars will miss the season start due to off-field incidents.
Payne Haas, the Brisbane Broncos forward, won’t feature after getting suspended for abusing police officers, while St George half Corey Norman missed out thanks to a street punch-up. Tom Trbojevic, the Manly Sea Eagles back, has a hamstring tear after an accident in the bathroom, though rumors have swirled after footage emerged of him racing a punter down Manly’s main drinking strip late on a Saturday night. Perhaps more embarrassingly for a man nicknamed Tommy Turbo, he appeared to lose the footrace.
As for myself, I’m now based in Sydney and will be attending games, keeping my ear to the ground and doing my best to find a Forbes angle on it all. I’m as rugby league as they come, but not of these parts, so in tribute to the countless ITK types in the ever-tabloid world of NRL journalism, I hope to use my foreign eyes to offer a new view on the greatest league of all in the greatest game of all. I’ll be publishing a weekly column under the #NRLOutsider name and you can expect coverage all the way through to the Grand Final in October. It stands to be one of the most exciting NRL seasons in years: I hope to bring you the best of it.
The NRL Outsider will drop every week from now until at least the end of the Rugby League World Cup in August. To read it every week, subscribe for free above by clicking in the top right-hand corner of your screen. You can also follow my work on Twitter, at @MikeMeehallWood.
Source: Forbes – Business