The NRL is back – in a much better financial shape than many predicted after the pandemic rode roughshod through the 2020 season, and rather than fighting for survival, it is looking at continued expansion.
A new Brisbane club is predicted to be competing alongside the Broncos from 2023 onwards, with an 18th, potentially in New Zealand to provide rivalry for the Warriors, coming on board in the years that follow.
“The plan is to stabilise, renovate, and then grow,” said NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo, as the Australian Rugby League Commission’s Chairman Peter V’landys claimed the existing 16 teams, as well as all state leagues, remain financially secure.
While the ARLC recorded a loss of A$24.7million (£13.8million) following the disrupted campaign, that didn’t taken into account the money-spinning post-season State of Origin series, which was reckoned to have been worth A$21 million (£11.7 million).
The figures reflect major cost-cutting measures by the NRL (at a time when Covid protocols caused expenses to rise while increased financial support was given to clubs) and the speed in getting the competition back up and running after Australia’s lockdown.
The NRL also negotiated a bumper new broadcast deal, reportedly worth A$2billion (£1.12billion) with existing partners Nine Entertainment, who are committed until the end of 2022, and Foxtel (2027).
That has provided a solid platform from which to move forward, although Abdo says caution will be the key, explaining: “We have to get through a very complicated season. We can’t take our eye off the ball.”
When it comes to the action on the pitch, England fans will be keeping a particularly close eye on Canberra Raiders, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Canterbury Bulldogs as the World Cup on home soil looms.
Ricky Stuart’s Green Machine might have lost dynamic backrower John Bateman, who has, of course, returned to Wigan. But they still have Josh Hodgson, Ryan Sutton, George Williams and Elliott Whitehead aiming to secure Great Britain call-ups.
Hooker Hodgson is aiming to make up for lost time after a knee injury kept him out for much of last season, when Canberra saw off Cronulla Sharks and triple-title chasers Sydney Roosters in the play-offs before defeat by eventual champions Melbourne Storm.
Ricky Stuart’s Raiders roster also includes Harry Rushton, the 19-year-old former Wigan backrower who has joined on a three-year deal after making just one Super League appearance for the Warriors.
Up in Sydney, Great Britain duo Tom Burgess and Luke Thompson will be out to pack down and help propel their respective sides Souths and Canterbury to bigger things under Wayne Bennett and Trent Barrett respectively after the disappointments of last year.
A narrow preliminary final defeat by Penrith meant Souths missed out on a first Grand Final appearance since 2014, while the Bulldogs, where Thompson arrived from St Helens in July, won just three times and only avoided finishing bottom on points difference.
That unwanted wooden spoon went to Brisbane Broncos, who never got going when the season resumed following lockdown, and replaced coach Anthony Seibold with Kevin Walters, who can call on some up-and-coming young stars, including threequarter Herbie Farnworth.
The 21-year-old from the Lancastrian village of Blacko, near Nelson, made his Brisbane debut in 2019 and last season scored six tries in 19 appearances to put himself on Lions coach Shaun Wane’s radar.
Up the coast at Newcastle, the Knights will be looking to make it back-to-back top-eight finishes for the first time since 2003 with the help of teenage English backs Dominic Young and Bailey Hodgson.
Huddersfield product Young, who has designs on representing Jamaica at the World Cup and has shone at centre in pre-season, made just two Super League appearances for the Giants, while utility back Hodgson headed Down Under after having played just once for Castleford.
Defending champions Melbourne must get used to life without influential captain Cameron Smith, but former Storm legend Billy Slater warned: “Don’t write them off – (coach) Craig Bellamy is still there, and that system is still there.”
That said, Bellamy is out of contract at the end of the season, while star winger Josh Addo-Carr is joining Canterbury in 2022, although that will only add to the club’s desire to make it back-to-back titles.
New rules add uncertainty for NRL clubs
By Ian Howe
Every season there are new rules introduced into the NRL and the 2021 season is no different.
This season there will be seven new rules for the players to cope with, starting from this Thursday, when Melbourne Storm host South Sydney Rabbitohs in a match that will feature on Sky Sports Arena at 9.00am.
Here is a brief résumé of what the new rules will be.
New Rule 1
When a captain’s challenge is inconclusive, a team will not be docked another challenge for an unsuccessful challenge.
New Rule 2
The Bunker will now review replays after an on-field referee awards a try, but a conversion attempt will not be allowed until it approves the try.
New Rule 3
Scrums will be replaced by a play-the-ball when the ball or ball carrier goes into touch.
New Rule 4
A six-again will be called for ten-metre infringements instead of a penalty.
New Rule 5
A long-range field goal from 40 metres or more out from the goal-posts will earn the scoring side two points, not one point.
New Rule 6
A penalty will be awarded if a player leaves the scrum before the referee calls “break”.
New Rule 7
A handover of the ball will be ordered when a player does not make a genuine attempt to play the ball correctly with his foot.
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