Game’s Heartland Moves North

By Brent Read
The Australian

Dave Smith was rebuked for saying it but the NRL chief executive was spot on — rugby league’s heart now beats in Queensland. The game’s soul resides north of the border.

The best teams and best players call Queensland home. Rugby league is enjoying a golden age in the golden state. Brisbane and North Queensland will put the exclamation point on a week which last night began with Johnathan Thurston winning his fourth Dally M Medal, a feat achieved by no other player in the game’s history.

You could mount an argument that he is now the best player the game has seen. Either way, he deserves to be in the debate. So does Cameron Smith, the player most likely to challenge Thurston for Immortal status when their glittering careers come to an end.

Both are Queenslanders. The State of Origin shield sits proudly in the offices of the Queensland Rugby League. It has for nine of the past 10 years, a dynasty like no other in the series’ history.

Soon enough, the Telstra premiership will be paraded around Brisbane or Townsville. Queensland simply can’t lose and their fans are lapping it up. Supporters flock to games in both destinations.

North Queensland fans travel up to six hours to attend home games. Some will scrape together their last cent and drive through the night to attend the grand final.

They do it because of their undying love for the game and their team. The Cowboys give them hope. Who needs rain when your footy team can win its first premiership?

At the same time, Manly fans can’t be bothered crossing a bridge. Sydney has lost the right to call itself rugby league’s heartland.

Its clubs are a cluttered mess, either propped up by the NRL or going to war as they pursue more money to fund their lavish lifestyles.

Their fans would rather sit at home and watch games on television than attend matches. They play the blame game. They suggest the game has changed, that it is no longer fun. They point the finger at rule makers and officialdom rather than admit their own apathy.

They need to look in the mirror. This year’s grand final features the sides that played the best football. The most entertaining, the most attacking. They play under the same rules yet they have exhilarated fans where other sides have exhausted them.

Sydney has forfeited the right to claim heartland status.

It shouldn’t end there either. When the NRL’s contract with the NSW government comes to an end in 2019, the grand final needs to go on the road. Suncorp Stadium should be the first port of call.

Queensland supporters deserve as much for their rabid passion. The game’s showpiece event should be held where the game is truly appreciated and admired. To steal a line from a whimsical parody of the Maroons, that’s in Queensland.

The NRL’s largesse shouldn’t end at the grand final either. The time has come to put another team in southeast Queensland. The planning needs to start now so a team can be in place when the new broadcasting agreement kicks into gear in 2018.

Alternatively, the NRL should look at moving a team from Sydney to Brisbane. Find the weakest link and move them north. By then, the Gold Coast Titans should be stabilised and in the hands of a new owner.

Suncorp Stadium needs to be filled on a weekly basis and the only way to do it is with expansion. Again, it is no less than Queenslanders deserve. It is no less than the game’s heartland deserves.