Photo by Getty Images
In the never-ending discussion that is possible NRL expansion, Adelaide appears to be the forgotten pin on the map. Most fans look towards Perth, a second Brisbane team, Central Coast, a second New Zealand team or Port Moresby before they even begin to consider the South Australian capital. Many remember the short-lived Adelaide Rams as a failure, but did the club really have a fair chance to establish themselves?
On the recent episode of the Chasing Kangaroos podcast I spoke with Justin Dooley, Manager for NRL South Australia.
“Even though it was a long time ago, people still talk about the Rams down here,” he said.
“The problem is they got caught up in the ARL/Super League war. They were collateral damage when the two bodies came together. It was very abrupt, and it did leave a sour taste in people mouths down here… the game sort of went backwards after that.”
Dooley is a former front-rower who appeared for the Eastern Suburbs Roosters, Western Suburbs Magpies, Hunter Mariners and London Broncos during the 1990s. Just over a year into his new role as NRLSA manager, he remembers his first Adelaide experience fondly.
“I actually played against the Rams in the first game at Adelaide Oval for the Hunter Mariners.”
The Rams won 10-8 that day in front of a crowd of 27,435 – the fourth-largest crowd in the only season of the Australian Super League and a record for the club in their two-year history.
In fact, the average attendance for the Rams in their maiden season was a respectable 15,330 – a figure most Sydney clubs would be proud of today. This number dropped in their second season to 7,472. Many sight poor on-field performances, the club’s looming demise as part of the ARL/Super League compromise, and strong seasons for Adelaide based clubs in rival codes for the 51% drop in home crowds.
One can’t help but wonder where the club would be today had they been given the opportunity to continue in the NRL. Without a doubt, the legacy of the Rams still lives on in Australia’s 5th largest city.
“Our junior academy is called the Rams, we have Rams on our jerseys, we have a Ram on the sign out the front of our office. People remember them fondly”. But Dooley understands the challenges he has in developing the game in the state. “We know we aren’t going to take over AFL.”
Instead, he looks to the other Rugby code for opportunities to build a greater niche in the market.
“Rugby Union is a lot bigger than us down here, and we are a similar game, similar demographic, similar people play. The biggest difference between us and them is they have great facilities.”
The truth is local clubs have a hard time locking down the same facilities season after season in a crowded sporting market. These little consistencies we take for granted in Sydney and Brisbane, where Rugby League is king, make it difficult to build participation. Despite this, player numbers are once again on the rise in South Australia for the first time since the death of the Rams. Figures are up 40% for NRLSA from 2018 to 2019 seasons due to the beginning of the three-team women’s competition and the successful Spring 9s tournament; a new 4-week initiative in October/November which has given many new faces a taste of Rugby League. NRLSA are also continuing initiatives to promote touch, tag and tackle forms of the game at the school level.
“We want to get more original born and bred South Australians playing,” Dooley says.
The Sydney Roosters may deserve some of the credit for the resurgence, having taken home games to Adelaide for the past three seasons.
“There is a lot of excitement in the lead-up and it creates a great event for our community to attend.”
Justin is also enthusiastic about the NRL bringing their premier event, State of Origin, to Adelaide Oval this June.
“It shows from a broader scale that the NRL is serious about rugby league in South Australia.”
The question is, what happens from 2021 now that the Roosters’ three-year deal with the South Australian State Government and tourism is over? One answer may be to bring the Kangaroos to town.
“They (the Australian Rugby Union) planned a Bledisloe Cup game here next year, but that has since been scrapped.”
A Kangaroo mid-season test on the way towards the 2021 World Cup could be just what Adelaide needs to continue to build a hunger for the sport. Kangaroos or not though, Dooley will continue to lead the push and grow the game from the ground up.
“Going forward the dream is that one day we might have a rugby league team down here again. But the reality is we are a long way off that because at the moment we don’t have the rugby league base to support that.” Dooley said. “Over the next five years, we hope that our competition is bigger and broader. We have five senior teams in 2020. We want to fill in the age groups for all of our teams and grow towards eight clubs playing juniors through to seniors.”
It’s refreshing to see a confident leader like Dooley in emerging rugby league territory.
“Give me their facilities (Rugby Union’s) for 10 years and I’ll make this game that big we will need two NRL teams.”
A South Australian derby in the NRL? Never say never.