It has been a big few weeks for Kiwi rugby league. Two home Tests played in front of big crowds in Wellington and Auckland, with mixed performances from the home team (and the home crowds). Over in London, former Kiwi prodigy Sonny Bill Williams made his debut in for All Blacks, while down under the Melbourne Storm were busy signing up the schoolboy son of former New Zealand rugby union skipper Tana Umaga and Hugh McGahan.
During the NRL finals series, footy footy footy’s Nick F talked to Wellington RL CEO Jason Hemson about recent developments in New Zealand rugby league, the importance of another rugby league pathway for talented New Zealand juniors, and the longer-term plan for an expanded NRL presence across the Tasman. Here’s the transcript of their chat.
Footy footy footy: How much progress do you feel the NZRL has made through the SPARC process ? Has it worked?
Jason Hemson: Absolutely. I’ve been involved in the game for 30-odd years, I’ve lived over here for 20 years now and continually the game over here has managed to shoot itself in the foot. The big shake-up came two and a half years ago when SPARC told us we needed to go through the review or we would get no assistance from them.
About 14 months ago we had Jim Doyle come on as CEO who is a businessman with no background in RL and he gave us some fresh ideas and a fresh focus to provide some leadership that’s been badly lacking in this sport over here for a long time. Already there have been some significant things happen in terms of sponsorship and business activities and overall the structure and pathways that have been created within the rugby league environment, so it’s a pretty exciting time for rugby league in New Zealand.
FFF: How important is it to have a second pathway for New Zealand rugby league juniors? In the last generation of All Blacks there are a number including Tana Umaga, Piri Weepu and Ma’a Nonu who are from the Wellington area and have strong rugby league backgrounds. Would a second team help stop the flow of talented youngsters away from the game?
JH: It would be huge. I believe that long term New Zealand could have three teams, I’m talking in 15 years time. Obviously getting a second team in is pretty important in the short to medium term to but long term there’s no doubt that there’s the football talent here to have three teams, especially when you have a look at the number of Maori and Polynesian kids that are coming through the Toyota Cup and are establishing themselves in the NRL.
Apart from the players you mentioned, Tana, Piri, what’s happening now, all those kids that are coming through that are going to play Super 15’s and All Blacks rugby will have had a taste of rugby league as well. We have a Colleges competition here that runs post rugby season to get all of the kids involved. We have 17 colleges involved, so the likelihood is that if a kid plays for his school in the 1st XV he’s probably also had experience playing RL as well.
We’ve got about eight to ten a year who go off to the NRL clubs, who go into the Toyota cup or the comp just below that. We’ve got the talent here but providing those pathways for them is hugely important, because as good as those NRL clubs have become at nurturing and helping the young kids from New Zealand, it’s still nothing like being at home. In terms of their family environment, a lot of the Polynesian culture is all about family. By having another team here it means we haven’t got kids leaving that safe environment, and there’ll be an even better chance of those kids succeeding in the top level.
FFF: So you are confident that rugby league is strong enough in terms of junior player base in New Zealand right now to sustain two NRL teams?
JH: I definitely believe there is. Already in this season I’ve got four or five kids that are on their way to NRL clubs for trials and scholarships and that type of thing. I think by having a second NRL team will only strengthen that.
It means that those kids that are tossing up between rugby and league now have another option. At the moment only rugby has that professional pathway for them with a strong domestic competition so it’s easier for kids to choose that. Having another NRL club on the doorstep would make rugby league more attractive to these kids.
Our numbers are growing here in Wellington. It’s certainly growing in Christchurch as well. It’s probably going to be another three or four years until we see a huge increase in numbers from the things put in place by NZRL. Just here in Wellington we’ve enjoyed success in the last 18-24 months in terms of the competitions that we run in raising the profile of RL as a sport, as a pathway, as an opportunity for kids. We’ve also been pretty lucky here in Wellington in that we’ve had a number of ex-NRL players come back and be able to put something back into the game locally and also provide those pathway links to NRL clubs. The likes of Johnny Lomax, David Lomax, other ex-NRL players who have been here and enabled us to open pathways.
FFF: You mentioned Christchurch. Are you going to be working as closely with them as the old ‘Southern Orcas’ bid did?
JH: Most definitely. There haven’t been any major discussions with them down there at the moment, [although] we touched based with them 2 years ago when we first looked at getting this off the ground. That’s definitely part of the plan, given the success of the Roosters game played down their earlier this year. Most times that RL has been played down there its been very well supported, and they’ve got a fairly big catchment area down there.
Definitely the plan would be to play 3 and 4 games a season outside of Wellington. I’d imagine that two of those would be in Christchurch, perhaps one in Dunedin, which will have the new enclosed stadium, and another one in the North Island near Taranaki.
FFF: What feedback have you had from the NRL?
JH: There’s been nothing put forward to them at this stage. The last conversation I had with Graham Annesley was about 12 months ago. Prior to that I had indicated to him that we were looking to put a bid together, just wanting to find out the major areas of concern they would have.
I had a year over with the Titans in 2007, working for one of their major sponsors, so I spent a bit of time around Michael Searle and got to find out the ins and outs of the success of their bid. The NRL had initially said no to the Gold Coast, but Michael wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept going back. The bottom line from what Graham Annesley was look, if you make the case so compelling that we can’t ignore it in terms of income for the NRL and growing the game and viewership, then it would be very hard to say no to a bid that brought all those things to the table.
Whether the criteria for us here in Wellington is the same criteria they had for the Gold Coast… it’s probably going to be a little bit different. The Gold Coast criteria would have had a lot to do with dollars in the bank, given that an NRL team had failed there three times before. They didn’t have a stadium, they didn’t have infrastructure there, so that was another thing they needed to tick off. One big thing they did have was the growth of rugby league in the area of the junior numbers. Once they were able to satisfy all of those [other] things, I think it was no doubt they were ready to put a team there. At that time the Gold Coast had matured enough as a city in its own right to be able to maintain a team and I think if you have a look at the history of the Titans it’s been well worth it and they’ve been vindicated for putting a team there.
For us in Wellington, we don’t have the pure numbers in terms of juniors that perhaps the Gold Coast do. But it wouldn’t just be based on Wellington. It would be based on a larger catchment area, so if you had a look at that you’re talking 1.5 million people, which is a lot bigger in terms of when you’re talking about some of the other bids. So our junior numbers do stack up in those terms. We’ve got the infrastructure here in terms of a major stadium which would be Westpac, so the only stumbling block we’ve got at the moment would be the dollars, the money in the bank. I’m more than confident that we’d be able to get that across the line if there was a timeframe for expansion put in place. What we have done in the last three or four months is start to crank things up on that side of it, to ensure that when the time does come to put a bid in that we’ve got the money there to substantiate it.
FFF: So you’re viewing the whole South Island as a potential player base?
JH: I think you have to. There are only 4.5 million people in NZ and a third of those live in Auckland. The Greater Wellington area has about half a million people, and if you include the area of Taranaki – which is only a four hour drive – or Hawkes bay –which is a four hour drive; and obviously the south Island – Christchurch is a one hour plane trip – then you’re talking substantial numbers. We’d be looking to get the backing and get the support of all of those.
The Warriors over here are supported by default more than anything outside of Auckland. The bottom line is they are really the Auckland Warriors not the New Zealand Warriors. They don’t do much for the development of the game outside of Auckland, and that’s another reason I believe we need a second team out of NZ to further develop the game and have a professional team responsible for developing the game outside of Auckland.
FFF: Will part of your bid include highlighting the advantages a second team in NZ would have to the NRL in terms of it’s scheduling, offering an additional time zone to broadcasters?
Absolutely, I think that’s one of the big things we do give to them, the ability to have a game in NZ every weekend. What it also does is add another local derby. You can imagine the first game of the season at Westpac stadium against the Warriors – we would fill it out! You put together a number of different scenarios in season draws based on different groupings of teams and local derbys and the NRL seems to be pretty interested in that sort of thing, with the success of the mini QLD derby. I’d see a situation between the Melbourne side and the two New Zealand sides there’d be a little sort of triangle derby going on, given the number of NZ players going through Melbourne and the number of New Zealanders working there. Given the amount of work that Melbourne’s done over here, there’s a really close tie with them.
FFF: How important is the crowd for the upcoming test match going to be for your bid? [Note: the New Zealand v England game in Wellington ultimately drew a crowd of 20,681].
JH: I think it will be a fairly good indicator as to whether there are people willing to support rugby league at that level. There’s a couple of things we’ve got going against us with the timing of the Test match. It’s over the Labour weekend, Wellington tends to pour away over the Labour weekend. It’s against the English as well, as opposed to Australia. But given all those things I’m confident we’ll get a fairly good crowd here. Previously, when there have been NRL games here with the likes of the Bulldogs and Canberra, the crowd support was really good. It was only when the Warriors weren’t competitive for a couple of seasons that the crowds dropped down to 12,000 or 15,000. We will be looking to use another venue apart from Westpac in the Wellington area as well, which would be more purpose built for RL – a rectangular stadium, seating 15,000. We’d probably be using a facility like that for eight or so of the games a season as well.
FFF: How difficult do you think it will be to crack the Wellington sporting market, given the existence of the Super 15 franchise and the improving Wellington Pheonix A-League team?
JH: One thing I will say about Wellington in the 20 years I’ve been here is that they do love their sport. It’s like a mini-Melbourne if you like. Wellingtonians will get in behind all of their sporting codes. It is one of the things that has been thrown up to me as the huge stumbling block, but I just see it as another challenge. Obviously it will be difficult but it won’t be impossible.
One of the good things about having a team in the NRL is that you’re not going to be solely reliant on sponsors that are New Zealand based, because it is an Australasian competition with international exposure. You have the ability there to think of outside of New Zealand in terms of sponsorship.
FFF: Which bids do you think will give you the strongest competition?
JH: If you have a look on the emotional side of things, the Central Coast is there, the old North Sydney Bears. They’ve certainly been working on it for a number of years and they’ve certainly got some money behind them as well. If they didn’t get in I think a lot of people would be surprised, the public would be surprised.
I think if you look behind the scenes though and look at what each bid might bring, the Central Coast wouldn’t bring very much in terms of new fans, because the Central Coast is already a rugby league town. I don’t think they would bring a lot in terms of extra TV revenue. I think realistically Perth – and I wouldn’t have said this 12 months ago because I didn’t think the NRL would try and take the AFL head-on in their own markets – there’s a lot of money over there, and enough resources. And if people are willing to get behind the team I think they would be ahead of even the Central Coast as the best option for the NRL as a business proposal. They also offer another timezone as well.
FFF: How important would it be to get this second New Zealand team on the back of the SPARC review and the hard-fought gains of the Warriors over the last decade?
JH: I think it’s crucial for the game in New Zealand, long term, I think it’s hugely important for the game here. Twenty years ago Kiwi teams were getting picked out of local New Zealand club sides. I was playing alongside the likes of Johnny Lomax and Tana Umaga. There’s never going to be a kid picked out of a New Zealand club side to play for the Kiwis ever again. The landscape over here has changed hugely and it’s that professional era. If the game is going to grow here at the grassroots level we’re going to need to provide pathways for kids to play at the highest level, but in New Zealand, and I think that’s why, long-term, there is an opportunity for NZ to have [even] a third team.
For those that missed it, FFF also talked to Greg Florimo of the Central Coast Bears and the NRL's John Brady on the issue of expansion earlier in 2010.