Expansion: We've got the depth to make this happen

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18 May 2019 - Written by Robert Burgin

Hand on heart, I swear I floated the idea of writing this exact column even before Ryan Papenhuyzen went ballistic for the Melbourne Storm the past two weeks.

One of my pet peeves is when opponents of expansionism says “there aren’t enough players” to sustain another two elite teams in the NRL.

Let’s forget for a second that 60 additional players would represent 0.2% of the 30,000-plus senior men playing the code in Australia.

There are at least 10 other good reasons why that argument doesn’t hold up.

I can understand economic rationalism being cited as a reason for pessimistic progression, but the argument about player depth has too many holes in it.

And here’s why:

1. The Papenhuyzen (et al) example

Okay so picking out one player and highlighting him is fraught with danger, but it illustrates that most clubs have at least one position where depth is off the charts. Fans have been amazed this week that Papenhuyzen was a third-choice fullback behind two other very talented athletes – Jahrome Hughes and Scott Drinkwater. Consider the Storm last year also had Billy Slater, and remember Cameron Munster can play fullback at a pinch too. At hooker, the Storm have Cameron Smith, Brandon Smith and Harry Grant, with third-stringer Grant showing signs he’d be good enough to be a starting hooker at most other clubs.

2. Super League, both as a destination and a supply chain

This past year we’ve seen the likes of Trent Merrin, Kevin Naiqama, Suaia Matagi, Kenny Edwards, Jason Clark, Jackson Hastings and Lachlan Coote all head to the northern hemisphere to extend their careers. If they’d had sufficient interest to match their salary expectations, do you think they would have still chosen to depart our shores? In the other direction, we’ve seen one of the world’s best outside backs arrive, Ryan Hall, and Canberra’s well-selected crop of Englishmen enjoy a fair degree of success. If the NRL was able to maintain that interest from England’s best prospects and simultaneously retain some of our outbound stars, that might even help the game across the world, providing greater opportunity for up-and-coming Brits in their domestic league.

3. The San Antonio Spurs

Okay, this is more than just a sneaky ploy to get my favourite NBA team into a rugby league conversation. But consider the Spurs built a dynasty – making it to the playoffs for 22 successive years – largely on developing players that other teams overlooked in the draft. Around a marquee player in Tim Duncan, they enlisted big improvers like Manu Ginobili (57th pick), Tony Parker (28th), Stephen Jackson (42nd), Luis Scola (55th), Dejounte Murray (29th) and Derrick White (29th). Even Kawhi Leonard was 15th in his draft, which seems absurdly low for the talent shown to date. In much the same way Craig Bellamy has become a master in turning bit-players into something special, the rewards will be there for coaches who can unearth the diamonds in the rough.

4. Rugby union is a basket case

Yep, I’m really showing my prejudices here, but how rugby union has any players or fans left in Australia after the last few years is a minor miracle. With 60 more professional spots available, rugby league would surely become an almightily attractive option for suitable converts. When you expand that premise to consider union players from countries actually in the top five in the world, the pool of potential poaching targets multiplies.

5. Origin is less demanding on clubs than previous

With scheduling adjustments and an increase in the number of players of overseas heritage, it means clubs do not have to scrape the barrel for players the same way they did in years gone by at Origin time. You aren’t seeing teams like the Brisbane Broncos suddenly having to find a whole new team of players for three rounds a year. We know well that, even in the old climate, quite a few of the emergency replacements proved themselves reasonably handy. The way it’s changed now, some of those players wouldn’t have got a chance to show what they could do until much later. That is, unless we add some new teams…

6. There’s no shortage of decent coaches

One aspect where you certainly can’t claim a shortage is in the coaching department. There’s been a relatively calm turnover of coaches in recent years. In most cases it’s been a shuffling of chairs, rather than turfing guys out on their butt. At the next level down, in the NSW and Queensland State Leagues, coaches have inched even closer to professionalism, now with technology at their fingertips and roles created so they can be more efficient and accurate in what they do. Again, a quick look at Super League also shows a host of people that wouldn’t mind opportunities in Australia. If two new teams were created, you wouldn’t have Mick the plumber from Barcoo running the show.

7. You need to branch out in order to grow

While senior participant numbers are currently stagnant, and have declined markedly since the early 1990s, we haven’t ventured into a whole heap of new areas to change that – not at the elite level anyhow. We’ve seen the odd player trickle through from Western Australia and the Northern Territory, but it could be argued we haven’t captured the best athletic prospects of those markets and other regions. Would a second team in New Zealand mean we’d capture more players from the Kiwi and South Pacific market? You’d like to think so. Of course, those players won’t appear overnight, but it fits part of a longer-term strategy.

8. Looking further afield

There have been numerous concepts floated to increase the number of players in the competition from non-traditional league backgrounds. If we stick to recruiting predominantly from Oceania, we’re tapping 0.54% of the world’s population. I like the idea that each club gets a salary cap exempt spot for an overseas resident not from Oceania or the United Kingdom. The attention on Valentine Holmes in the NFL’s International Pathways program shows how beneficial that could be in reverse. Before fans go jumping off the deep end, thinking their clubs would need to recruit ping-pong players from Pyongyang, keep in mind this would still allow you to recruit some of the best Under-20s talent from rugby in France, South Africa and Argentina, plus mine the depths of cast-offs from the NFL system.

9. The Western Suburbs example is now 20 years ago

Whenever expansion is mentioned, stalwarts are quick to refer back to the Western Suburbs team of 1999 as an example of insufficient depth. That Magpies team had an atrocious for-and-against of -659 for the season, conceding an average 40 points per game and only scoring 11 points per game. It sounded the death knell for the Magpies as a stand-alone side in the top tier. But let’s consider that in the two decades since, points differentials for teams have rarely exceeded -300. Last season the worst for-and-against was Newcastle with -193. And who had the worst differential a decade ago? The Roosters (-299) with a team that contained Anthony Minichiello, Mitchell Pearce, Mitch Aubusson, Jake Friend, Craig Fitzgibbon, Mark O’Meley, Willie Mason, Nate Myles and Iosia Soliola among others. Insufficient talent was not their problem.

10. It opens the way for entertainment

If you think of players like Papenhuyzen, Jayden Okunbur and Matt Dufty, what we are looking at are not three players without substantial talent. We’re looking at the kind of players that coaches were tentative to roll the dice on until fate forced their hand. They have risk elements to their game. There’s a big up side, and potentially a down side as well. Across the NRL feeder competitions, there have been a heap of players of the same ilk. They are yet to be robotocised or their body type is not the norm. Now, for a coach, that’s a health and job security risk. For fans, it’s the stuff that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Let’s consider this - when the Auckland Warriors were admitted as an expansion team in 1995, they waited until the seventh round before debuting a young half called Stacey Jones.

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