The announcement of the Perth hosting the second Origin game in 2022 is an hopeful indication that the NRL has them in the expansion plans. The 2019 Origin at Optus Stadium briefly held the ground attendance record, even surpassing WA’s beloved West Coast Eagles. While a second Brisbane/fourth Queensland team is a must-have for the self-proclaimed “heartland” of rugby league, Perth should be right behind them, even though ARLC Chairman Peter Beattie said, ‘Western Australia is years away from having its own team‘. Then again, this is the same guy who can’t tell the difference between FC Barcelona and the Newcastle Knights, so insert grain of salt here.
The NRL Nines at HBF Park in early 2020 was a decent success, though much smaller in scale than Origin.
While the AFL is king in WA, there is room for “Rugby”. The Western Force returned when the Super Rugby competition split into Australia and New Zealand versions due to COVID-19, and they’ve done pretty well; they’ve won four games out of eight in Super Rugby AU 2021 and will meet the ACT Brumbies in the preliminary final this weekend. Many feel the Force shouldn’t have been axed in the first place, so it feels like justice has been served. Likewise the Western Reds, who were one of the better ARL expansion teams 20-odd years ago: we all remember that famous opening round win over St George in front of nearly 25,000 at the WACA.
Though, before we bring back a Perth team to rugby league, let’s forget about converting hard-wired AFL fans. While the Melbourne Storm have only missed the finals three times since 1998, won four “official” premierships, provided the nucleus of Queensland’s eight-straight Origin wins, and survived a salary cap crisis that would’ve killed weaker clubs, the majority of Victorians don’t care. Not even the high-profile support of everyone’s favourite music guru Molly Meldrum can help them. While surpassing Australian Rules in Victoria and WA is a pipe dream, “Rugby” can still co-exist there (though don’t expect much coverage from the AFL-obsessed mainstream media).
The NRL have laid the groundwork for Perth with the West Coast Pirates playing in the S.G. Ball Cup. While the Pirates have collected six wooden spoons in a decade, the point is they’re in there. For argument’s sake, let’s say Perth keep the Pirates moniker for their NRL entry.
If nothing else, a Perth team is a dream for broadcasters, as live home games will create a natural double header due to the time difference. Let’s say Perth has an 8pm Friday night game: that will air in the eastern states at 10pm, straight after the main Friday night game in NSW/QLD/VIC/ACT (you can dream of prime-time Friday Night Footy, Raiders fans). This potentially means less of the awkward 6pm Friday timeslot, which only works if the Warriors are playing. It also allows an even bigger Super Saturday (a Super Duper Saturday?), with up to four Saturday games if the Pirates play at 8pm at home, or even a Sunday afternoon/evening triple header.
While the Western Reds did ok in their three seasons in the ARL/Super League, their downfall was cost: they finished with a $10 million debt from to paying the visiting teams’ airfares.
There is one possible way around this, and it’s borrowed from Super Rugby: let the Pirates play their home and away games in blocks. For example, the Pirates would play three straight homes games, and then would have a “mini-tour” for three weeks, where they could play the Broncos, Titans and Cowboys (or even the Bombers one day) on a Queensland tour, or play three Sydney clubs. This has been used by clubs in the old Australia/New Zealand South Africa Super Rugby, where – for example – the Brumbies would play in South Africa or New Zealand for three weeks.
As you can see, a Perth NRL team can work; it’s just a matter of how long it’ll take (regardless of what Mr Beattie says). Watch this space.