What Should Be the Future Season Format of the NRL?

With the abbreviated 2020 NRL season to resume in late May, NothingbutLeague decided to play a hypothetical game.

What if the NRL stuck to a shorter regular season from 2021, with a longer pre-season, 15 regular season rounds, an extended 10-team finals series, more representative football, and a dedicated State of Origin window?

Here’s how it will look.


  • Mid-February: a two-day NRL Nines tournament (preferably in a non-traditional city like Perth, Melbourne, or Adelaide).
  • Late February to late March: the return of a Tooheys Challenge-style knockout competition. Teams who want to take this seriously can play some meaningful pre-season footy, while teams who are knocked out will play their usual trials in country areas.

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NRL Season Part One

  • Late March to mid-May: the first eight NRL rounds, with Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium in round eight – a great way to enter the Origin break.

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State of Origin and Representative Football

  • Late May to early July: a dedicated seven-week window, with Origin played every second Wednesday night. With no NRL in this period, Origin-heavy teams won’t be forced to field weaker sides and risk losing a precious two competition points.

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  • The empty weekends will be filled with an expanded Pacific Nations series featuring Tonga, Samoa, PNG, and Fiji. Each team would play each other twice, in Saturday afternoon/evening double headers (two games each weekend for six weeks). The top two teams will play the final on the Saturday night after the final Origin game, with an Origin Legends game on the Friday night. This gives Origin players a prolonged break before resuming NRL duties.
  • The first six Friday nights would be devoted to women’s footy: a three-game Origin series followed by a three-Test series between the Jillaroos and the Kiwi Ferns. This would give the women’s game fantastic prime-time exposure. Hopefully Channel Nine (assuming they’re still the free-to-air broadcasters) bring their A-grade commentary team.

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NRL Season Part Two

  • Mid-July to late-August: rounds nine to 15 of the NRL, with everyone playing everyone else once.

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NRL Finals

  • An extended 10-team finals series compensates for the shorter regular season, and gives more teams a chance. The top six teams are guaranteed finalists, with the top four getting the double chance. Teams seven to 10 will participate in a stand-alone Wildcard Weekend (7 v 10, 8 v 9) in the last weekend of August.
  • September: the first three rounds of the top eight finals (qualifying/elimination finals, semi-finals, preliminary finals), based on the current format.
  • The NRLW will also be played in September.

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NRL Grand Final

  • The grand final will be played on the last Sunday in September, with the NRLW Grand Final and the NRL State Championship as lead-up games.

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Test Football

  • October and November will be devoted to the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.

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  • In non-RLWC years, there will be a two-day World Nines, followed by Test matches involving Australia, New Zealand, England, Tonga, Samoa, PNG, and Fiji.

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The Justification for a Shorter Season

While having only 15 rounds as opposed to 25 may hurt some NRL clubs’ bottom line (sacrificing four to five home games), the shorter season means each round means more. Teams playing each other once is much fairer than the current system, where some (but not all) teams play each other twice: while a full home-and-away season would be ideal (30 rounds), it would take way too long.

The 15-round season avoids ridiculous situations were Brisbane and North Queensland play twice in the first five rounds. Home games would be on a rotational basis: if Brisbane plays North Queensland at Suncorp Stadium in 2021, then North Queensland would host the return game in 2022.

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While the shorter season will affect player’s salaries, broadcast content, and membership structures, there will hopefully be fewer “dead” games towards the end of the season. Having a decent mid-season break may reduce injuries and keep players fresh for the August finals run, which should produce better-quality football.

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