It’s February, which means the NRL trials are in full swing.
While it’s important for coaches and players, it’s hard to get emotionally invested as a fan: if your team loses, it’s easy to write it off as “just a trial” and wait until the real stuff begins in March.
With the future of the NRL Nines unclear (it was set to return, but that was before COVID-19 turned everything sideways, and some coaches don’t take it that seriously anyway), is it time to bring back the pre-season knockout tournament?
Known as the Tooheys Challenge from 1992 to 1995, this popular comp took footy to the bush and gave Channel Nine some extra content.
So, let’s look at a hypothetical “[insert sponsor here] Challenge” for 2022, played at various country grounds in NSW and QLD.
Round One (Thursday February 3 to Sunday February 6, 2022)
A full slate of eight knockout games, with one game on Thursday night, a Friday double-header, a Saturday triple-header, and a Sunday double-header (either two afternoon games or a late afternoon and early evening game). The traditional Souths v St George Illawarra Charity Shield can be incorporated into this first round, giving it a little bit of extra meaning.
Round Two (Friday February 11 to Sunday February 13)
The four quarter finals, with a Friday night game, a Saturday twilight/evening double-header, and a Sunday afternoon game.
Round Three (Friday February 18 to Saturday February 20)
The two semi-finals: one Friday night and one Saturday night.
Round Four (Saturday February 27)
The Saturday night grand final.
The beauty of the knockout comp is it’s customisable: teams who want to take it seriously get up to four weeks of meaningful footy, while teams who are more focused on the premiership proper can play their ‘kids’ in round one, take the inevitable loss, and still have three weeks to prepare for the NRL season, with trials, intra-club games, or matches against QLD/NSW Cup teams.
Speaking of trials, there’s the possibility of joining up with the knockout comp to create double/triple-headers from round two: for example, play a trial on Saturday afternoon, followed by two of the knockout quarter finals.
While Fox League/Kayo are a given to show every game, Channel Nine could be a harder sell. February is that start of the new ratings season, and Nine may be more interested in flogging their latest reality shows to death than showing any knockout footy. They could always show the Thursday/Friday games and stick them on GEM.
Will it Work?
I can’t see why not. Unlike the Nines, where a few teams not taking it seriously can devalue the tournament, it shouldn’t matter if some clubs don’t care enough to progress past week one and instead use it as a glorified trial.
For teams who probably won’t feature in September, winning the knockout comp can be springboard to better things. Illawarra (1992) and South Sydney (1994) won the Tooheys Challenge, and it helped them: the Steelers made the 1992 preliminary final, while Souths finished ninth in 1994 (after a bottom four finish in 1993).