It’s February (yes, already), and the start of another NRL pre-season: a series of relatively meaningless trial games (and the traditional Charity Shield), which fails to give a proper indication of your team’s chances.
The NRL’s attempts to give the pre-season some meaning hasn’t worked: the Auckland Nines (meant to be a fun two-day carnival) has lost the novelty value and isn’t on this year, with some coaches’ reluctance (or outright refusal) to take it seriously hurting its credibility. Fans either love it or hate it.
The Indigenous All-Stars game – initially seen as a fantastic way to celebrate the NRL’s Indigenous players – won’t be played this year, though should be back next year.
Aside from the Cameron Smith-Johnathan Thurston testimonial game at Lang Park on February 23, there’s little to get excited about until round one.
Both rugby union and AFL have decent pre-seasons. Union’s Global Tens is back after a successful first year while the AFLW is captivating and complements the AFL men’s pre-season tournament.
There is a way – albeit ambitious – to give the NRL pre-season some life.
Stage a 32-team knockout comp: the 16 NRL teams and 16 teams from the Qld Intrust Super Cup and NSW Instrust Super Premiership.
So how would it work?
The top eight teams from the QLD and NSW Cups (based on the previous season’s rankings) make up the 16 non-NRL teams.
The (insert sponsor here) Challenge will be played from late January to early March.
The below fixture uses this year’s dates as a guide.
ROUND ONE (Thursday January 25 – Sunday January 28/Thursday February 1 – Sunday February 4)
WEEKEND ONE: Four NRL v NRL games, four NSW/QLD Cup v NSW/QLD Cup games.
WEEKEND TWO: Four NRL v NRL games, four NSW/QLD Cup v NSW/QLD Cup games.
ROUND TWO (Thursday February 8 – Sunday February 11)
The sixteen teams will be ranked by their round one winning margins (highest winning margin = rank one).
A) NRL 1 v N/Q CUP 8
B) NRL 2 v N/Q CUP 7
C) NRL 3 v N/Q CUP 6
D) NRL 4 v N/Q CUP 5
E) N/Q CUP 4 v NRL 5
F) N/Q CUP 3 v NRL 6
G) N/Q CUP 2 v NRL 7
H) N/Q CUP 1 v NRL 8
QUARTER FINALS (Friday February 16 – Sunday February 18)
I) Winner A v Winner H
J) Winner B v Winner G
K) Winner C v Winner F
L) Winner D v Winner E
SEMI FINALS (Friday February 23 – Saturday February 24)
M) Winner I v Winner L
N) Winner J v Winner K
GRAND FINAL (Friday March 2)
O) Winner M v Winner N
Games will be played either in the country (like the old Tooheys Challenge) or the suburban grounds of NSW and QLD Cup teams. Due to the February heat, most games will be played at night or late afternoon in four 20 minute quarters. Fox League would telecast most games, with Nine hopefully squeezing some games around their packed reality TV schedule.
While it’ll likely be all NRL teams from the quarter finals, the experience for the NSW/QLD Cup teams in the first two rounds would be amazing. With no expectations, they can play with freedom. Any upset wins would make headlines and get fans talking. If a NSW/QLD Cup player really impresses, they could land a coveted NRL contract.
Will NRL clubs take this seriously? Surely some coaches – like at the Nines – will refuse to field decent teams. With the NRL teams playing each other in round one, the disinterested sides will be knocked out and can continue their pre-season how they choose, no harm done. For NRL teams who want to take it seriously, it’s a fantastic opportunity to play some meaningful footy and maybe win a trophy.