For all the problems of expansion, player quality is not one of them

For all the problems of expansion, player quality is not one of them

The never-ending Toronto saga has come back into play this week, with the will-they-won’t-they, in-then-out, shake-it-all-about international myopic coming to the fore.

It is expected Toronto’s 2021 fate will be decided in the coming weeks. For Roosters fans this has implications for the, er, mercurial Sonny Bill Williams. For the rest of Australian rugby league, I imagine it’s been greeted with an indifferent shrug, like hearing Friday night’s fixture is the Bulldogs versus Sea Eagles.

Closer to home, this brought out the inevitable arguments about expansion, conducted with all the civility that four years of Brexit debate has imbued us. But I’ve noticed very different points of contention against British spread to Canada and the NRL’s expansion, notably that of player quality.

I would love NRL expansion if nothing but for more early morning entertainment and the chance to lose even more money on winning points margins. But I’m not here to argue the who, where and when. I don’t know if it’s wise to push into Western Australia or divvy up the Queensland market.

I merely want to take apart a specific argument against additional sides that player quality and depth cannot support any more first-grade teams. There are two tenets to this idea: whether there are enough first-grade quality players and how they’re top-loaded to the game’s powerhouses.

To those looking for a more equitable competition, expansion is a distraction. A new side in Christchurch won’t push Melbourne to raid Queensland any more than present. For a more exciting format where bottom can beat top and year-to-year performances are as unpredictable as a Cowboys job interview fighting against expansion is the avoidance of other ideas like a draft that can make a meaningful difference.

Then comes the issue regarding the quantity of first-grade-quality players. There are those that argue the 16-team competition is too big as it is, with players who don’t belong in the big time merely making up the numbers. Another side or two would surely make this worse.

That is possibly true if recruiters continue in their current vein, but there are cheap and viable solutions. At the risk of sounding like a broken record – played at a whiny 45” from a one-hit wonder – it involves looking slightly further afield than New South Wales and Queensland.

Any Melbourne fans who have studied Justin Olam’s play this year – and, being in Victoria, they may not have much else better to do right now – know this kid is the real deal. He came through the Papua New Guinea Hunters, and having seen the Hunters win the 2017 Queensland Cup and the national side reach the 2017 World Cup quarter-finals, their large rugby league-mad population offers the potential for so many more Olams.

It’s unlikely clubs will find world-class finished articles, but by signing young Hunters and developing them in-house there exists the opportunity for a whole generation to develop into NRL-quality footballers. With the addition of Fiji into the NSWRL set-up similar opportunities, if on a smaller scale, exist in this patch of Melanesia too.

And then there’s the Old Dart. At the risk of betraying blinkered home-grown bias, who across the game has not been impressed by Canberra’s Englanders, or the Burgesses or Jimmy Graham crashing into anything with a pulse? Even Herbie Farnworth is standing out for the Broncos (not a hard task, admittedly).

Thomas Burgess looks on

The thing is, these players, while brilliant, were not too far out of the ordinary in the UK. Most would not have predicted such success for them Down Under. They don’t stand out in the UK because of the competition’s low profile and inconsistently competitive nature. But there are many players in England who are above NRL average and could make a real difference to an Australian team.

Canberra and Newcastle are already in on the act of signing young English players, like Harry Rushton and Dom Young respectively, and developing them in the mould of my Papua New Guinea example. There is a whole hemisphere of talent, both NRL-ready and with high potential, that can take the competition’s quality to the next level.

Perhaps I’m a little naïve. Not every Brit is Josh Hodgson. For every Sam Burgess comes a Luke Burgess. But let’s not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. The foreign examples I have given would be complementary to the already bustling talent pool pre-existing in Australia. It’s not as if a Perth side would become some sort of 13-manned Botany Bay, but there exists room for plenty more foreign players to take the NRL in their stride.

I don’t know key details, if a second Brisbane side would just halve the city’s fan-base et cetera. These are questions that require hard answers from those more qualified and better paid. But let’s not scupper the chance for more great rugby league because we’re afraid the Perth hooker isn’t as good as Cameron Smith or because the next young hotshot prefers Marmite to Vegemite.