The Warrior Dolphins
Just before kick-off of the Bulldogs-Dragons spoon bowl on Monday, the Warriors dropped a big press release. Contained within is an important story with a lot of implications for rugby league, so let’s go through them.
For the Broncos
It wasn’t that long ago that the Broncos had six feeder clubs in the Queensland Cup. It was probably too many, even if we ignore the fact that the Capras’ remoteness makes them relatively useless. I guess Brisbane felt a responsibility to give all of the clubs something, even if it wasn’t necessarily in the optimal interest of everyone.
Over the first off-season, the Jets aligned themselves with the Newcastle Knights. Seemingly this is because the Broncos and Jets organisations had differing philosophies and the new partnership makes “very good sense as Newcastle is really Ipswich by the sea”.
Even though NRL-contracted Knights players will still drop down into the Knights’ Canterbury Cup squad rather than the Jets’ Intrust Super Cup team, Ipswich now forms part of the Newcastle pathway. Presumably this means the Knights will get some sort of droit du seigneur on Ipswich kids, provided that they aren’t snapped up by other clubs beforehand (if you think geographical boundaries mean anything, you can go count the talented alumni of Gold Coast high schools at the Brisbane Broncos).
Then, not long after the conclusion of the second off-season, the Dolphins suddenly announced that they too were leaving the stable. They first joined in 2006, leaving the Roosters to fend for themselves. The Toowoomba Clydesdales, the Broncos’ other feeder at the time, folded not long after, were replaced by Aspley for one season in the Queensland Cup and then the focus shifted to the Dolphins form 2008 onwards.
The Dolphins had been given imperial preference by the Broncos. The best of the rest played at Redcliffe and the club formed something of a finishing school for future Broncos. The Dolphins played Matt Lodge for a season in 2018 as the Broncos waited out the PR penalty for that signing and got Lodge back into shape. In short, the clubs were tight and now they are not.
In the space of six months, Brisbane has gone from six to four feeders. It’s something of a high performance sporting break-up. No one knows (yet, exactly) why. Given the current state of the team’s first grade side and both front and back offices, eyebrows are necessarily raised.
For the Warriors
A New Zealand Warriors-branded team replaced the Auckland Vulcans in the New South Wales state cup in 2014. Since then, the reserve Warriors have bobbed around average but hardly blown the doors off the competition. Their best season was 2017, finishing in second place with a 13-5-4 record, before exiting in the prelims.
The re-purchase of the Warriors by a combination of the Auckland Rugby League via the Carlaw Heritage Trust and Autex Industries, a long time supporter of New Zealand rugby league, in April 2018 led to a hint that the Warriors reserves would run through the Auckland rugby league premiership, with the aim of raising that competition’s standard. That never happened and Autex ended up buying out the rest of the Warriors after a break down of “over a difference in philosophies and personality clashes”.
So it seems that the idea is on the backburner and the Warriors have seized a great opportunity.
The main benefit will be leveraging the Dolphins’ extensive experience in developing players. This doesn’t seem to have been to be the Warriors’ major issue. Having access to the best talent that New Zealand rugby union overlooked or discarded means having access to so many kids with potential that it’s hard to fail to develop at least a few stars. Nonetheless, the finishing school might be the one or two percent polish on development players that’s separating the Warriors from that elusive premiership.
Shuttling reserve grade players from Auckland to Brisbane is probably no more difficult than shuttling them between Auckland and Sydney. The state cup travel load in Queensland is greater than in New South Wales but it won’t be anything that Redcliffe, or the Warriors for that matter, won’t already be used to. It might be worth it if the deal comes with some Knights-style droit du seigneur on unscouted talent in the Moreton Bay region.
For the Dolphins
With the Dolphins bidding to become the NRL’s second Brisbane franchise and if they are successful, the relationship with the Broncos would inevitably have to be severed. This might be the first, albeit somewhat premature, step.
The basic math is that if NRL squads have thirty signatories and only seventeen can play on game day and minus a few injuries, there’s roughly six to ten pros who need something to do each weekend. Typically, they play in reserve grade competitions, as accommodated by the NRL’s farm teams. In New South Wales, those surplus to first grade’s requirements are sent to play at one club but in Queensland, players are assigned to a varying number of clubs. The fringe first graders are generally better quality than the other state cup-level footballers, so getting as many into your lineup is critical to success in the second tier.
When the Broncos’ cup ran over, the Dolphins were the primary beneficiary. The benefit for Redcliffe now is that instead of sharing nine or ten fringe first graders with Souths Logan, Norths and Wynnum-Manly, they can get a NRL club’s set of players to themselves. In terms of the 2019 Warriors, think Chanel Harris-Tavita, Tom Ale and a handful of forwards that have played at NRL level, like Bunty Afoa, Ligi Sao and Sam Lisone, and instead of getting two or three of them, the Dolphins will now have all five.
For the Queensland Cup
In the most recent editions of the Queensland Cup, there’s generally been four clubs in the mix: Redcliffe (Broncos), Burleigh (Titans), Townsville (Cowboys) and whichever of Easts and Sunshine Coast the Storm happen to favour that season. There’s the occasional incursion from your Hunters and Seagulls types but generally that’s been four of the top six.
Introducing a fifth NRL club will presumably add a fifth power. Considering Redcliffe is already one of those powers, it will be from the Broncos reassigning their talent elsewhere. They have only three metro clubs to choose from: Wynnum-Manly, Souths Logan and Norths. We could baselessly speculate that the Magpies, already home to Cory Paix, Tom Dearden and Tesi Niu in 2020, will become New Redcliffe but perhaps the Broncos would prefer to build on the stronger base at Kougari, as Wynnum-Manly finished runners-up in three grades in 2019.
Even if the Broncos split the difference, one of the clubs will likely luck out and rise up, so the establishment of a new feeder relationship resets the balance in a way not seen since NSWRL clubs were allowed to feed into the competition.
Still unknown is the fate of the under 20s and under 18s Warriors’ and Dolphins’ sides. The Warriors did not participate in Jersey Flegg in 2020 as is, after going 9-9-2 in 2019, but the SG Ball side sat in third when the competition was suspended. While the Storm uses Queensland feeders, their junior sides play in the NSW competitions as of last year. Perhaps we will see junior Dolphins continue in the Queensland competitions and junior Warriors playing in Auckland. Further unknown is if Redcliffe get the nod to go up to the NRL, whether the Warriors will return to NSW or partner with a different Queensland club.
For the NSW Cup
Now we ask ourselves, what actually is the point of the New South Wales Cup?
The Canterbury Cup is stuck between two ideas: that the second tier competition should be a reserve grade for the Sydney NRL clubs and that there should be a high level competition across the state of New South Wales. The recent merger of the Country Rugby League into the NSWRL makes the question more pertinent.
Where is the representation of regional NSW in the state competition? Other than Newcastle, the cup is limited to a triangle between Woollongong, Penrith and Gosford. Roughly three million people, enough to be the fourth largest state in the country in its own right, live in the ACT and New South Wales outside of Sydney.
With the Canterbury Cup now down to eleven contestants, it’s time for the NSWRL to consider what its purpose is. Dare I suggest expansion to engage a wider base? There are six regions in the CRL that could provide the basis of new teams. Combine that with the Sydney has-beens (North Sydney, Newtown, Western Suburbs) and the never-weres (Mounties, Wenty, Blacktown) and a few outside teams, like the Kaiviti Silktails or new teams established in the southern states, and you’d have yourself a pretty decent league with a totally different flavour to the NRL.
We could also dispense with the idea that taking Sydney club games to regional areas is good because they would have teams to call their own, forcing the Sydney clubs to pull their fingers out and find some fans.
Of course such an approach would undermine the direct influence that the Sydney NRL clubs have, so it will never fly. They may point to earlier, half-hearted efforts made in areas outside of Sydney and their presumed failure as a reason to consolidate the competition into a vanilla reserve grade offering. “We tried that, it didn’t work.”
Insofar as there’s any measure of the respective popularity of the second tier comps, the Queensland grand final seems to attract greater attendances than its New South Wales counterpart. My theory is that while the quality is generally stronger in New South Wales (fewer clubs with more fringe first graders) it has less appeal because its main selling point is to have the same clubs as the NRL but with worse rosters. Its difficult to see such a competition achieving any degree of popularity, outside of the anoraks who have read this far and people watching the lead-in to the Sunday arvo game.
The thing about different clubs is that they represent different areas, have different colours and different histories. These clubs have different meanings and that’s what gets people to care. Fans having multiple clubs to support across different competitions would be a net benefit for rugby league, keeping people more engaged and for longer.
Maybe think about it, New South Wales.