Matthew Johns says the NRL is going down the wrong path in terms of expansion and the Papua New Guinea Hunters must be the next team to join the competition.
Cities like Perth and Adelaide are frequently touted as possible locations as part of a strategic plan to grow the sport and plans for a second team in Brisbane has been on the agenda for a decade.
But Johns says the game’s administrators are guilty of tunnel vision in their pursuit of growth and should be targeting the Hunters as the next team to join the NRL.
The Hunters have been an instant success since their inaugural season in the Queensland Cup in 2014 and are one win away from being crowned this year’s premiers.
Johns believes the inclusion of the PNG side will revolutionise the NRL like the West Indies did for cricket in the 1980s.
“I urge the game to think out of the square, go away from their traditional thinking. We look at the game too narrowly and we look at the Australian continent … we keep talking that ‘we want Perth, we want Perth’ and I get that,” Johns said on Triple M’s The Grill Team.
“(But) The Pacific Islands, that’s where the growth is.
“We’ve got a situation this weekend in the Queensland Cup, the Sunshine Coast are playing against the PNG Hunters.
“It is the most underestimated story in rugby league that the PNG Hunters are in the Queensland Cup grand final, the second best competition in rugby league outside of the NRL … I put it on par with the English Super League, it is that strong of a competition.
“Last weekend in Port Moresby to get into the game [preliminary final] they were lining up for 24 hours to watch the game.
“What are we doing? When’s our plan to bring them in?
“They could be the West Indies. The West Indies revolutionised cricket in the 80s and they could do the same thing for rugby league”.
Johns also weighed in on the participation debate at the junior level after NRL CEO Todd Greenberg conceded it has become increasingly challenging to promote the 13-a-side version of the game to teenage boys in particular.
He says the physicality and contact at that age group became a daunting prospect for a lot of young boys.
“Thirteen is a really pivotal age,” he said.
“Thirteen is when a lot of boys get the big testosterone drop, some kids don’t get it until their 15, 16.
“I’m telling you, I remember at 13 years of age and I was a skinny little kid playing against some kids who looked like they had a three day growth.
“You’re scared, it is scary.”
Fellow Grill Team host Mark Geyer also said he has witnessed the “disintegration” of junior football in the heartlands of rugby league with his own eyes.
“We’re watching bush footy disintegrate before our eyes,” Geyer said.
“I’m watching teams even in our metropolitan area because of registration fees and of other sports coming in like Oztag and AFL.
“I know rugby league is a traditional game we’ve grown up with but when I was playing footy growing up there was 14 teams in Mt Druitt alone, now there’s one.”
One area experiencing a surge in participation is women’s rugby league but Johns fears the NRL is falling behind its biggest competitor, the AFL, when it comes to developing the women’s game.
“The women’s Sydney domestic league competition grand final is on this weekend between the Newcastle side and the Redfern All Blacks,” Johns said.
“I said to the girls, what’s the plan for next year and they said ‘we haven’t heard, there are no plans.’
“C’mon, there is a real want for women to have that pathway to be able to play at some sort of elite level.
“The AFL have led that way with the AFLW so there is so much more they can do for participation levels that they are sitting on their hands with.”