NRL floats idea of conference system in potentially huge shake up for rugby league

The NRL is considering the biggest shake-up in the competition’s 113-year history, floating the possibility of conference systems to several clubs. League officials have met almost half of the competition’s clubs in recent weeks, sharing a vision for the league’s future as it pushes towards expansion.

It is understood one strategy mentioned to clubs in their board meetings is that of a Sydney and non-Sydney conference, which would tie into an eventual 18-team competition. The idea forms part of a study into the sport’s future look, which includes the expected introduction of a second Brisbane team in 2023.

An 18th team would then follow shortly after, with New Zealand floated as one option while Perth would likely want to push for that spot as well. NRL officials have told clubs that would then allow for nine-team conferences to become an option in several years’ time, with an even number of teams in and out of Sydney.

The concept has a number of advantages, particularly around the guarantee of a maximum number of all-Sydney games each year.

The idea of conferences was first seriously floated last year during the Covid-19 shutdown, as the game tried to restart safely during a shortened season. But while administrators eventually took a different option, they never completely went away from the idea.

It would mean a fairer draw given the randomness around which teams play each other twice under the current system. For instance, Newcastle play only five matches against last year’s top-four sides in 2021, while Brisbane have eight such games.

Other positives include under the 25-round model there would be room for Magic Round to mean each team still has 12 home games. There could also be room for each team to play a match in regional areas each season.

However, there are already downsides being pointed out by some clubs. The travel factor would be immense for the teams such as Newcastle and Canberra, who would spend every third week headed interstate. In comparison, Sydney teams would have to leave the NSW/ACT area just four or five times a year.

It could also wipe out the possibility of an all-Sydney grand final, given the model would likely have a Super Bowl-style decider with the winners of the two conferences. The counter to that would be a blockbuster preliminary final in Sydney, which has traditionally struggled to sell out in recent years. There is also the potential that the finals could still have a top-eight system, if the NRL moved away from the Super Bowl system.