MITCHELL JOHNSON: Perth is the best place for NRL to launch its next team and the AFL’s State of Origin plan

Mitchell Johnson
The Nightly
Perth should be home to the next NRL  team.
Perth should be home to the next NRL team. Credit: Will Pearce

In one of the most competitive sporting markets in the world, the AFL and NRL have long seen themselves as natural enemies.

Always trying to out-do one another. Never letting the other have a free kick. Never missing the chance to stick the boot in when they can.

Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau were even paid a fortune to switch allegiances and spearhead the AFL’s push into enemy territory with the launch of the Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Sydney Giants.

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More recently, the NRL’s Magic Round has become the AFL’s Gather Round. The AFL’s season start seems to creep earlier every year in a bid to match the March content provided by the NRL, with the AFL’s “Opening Round” this year played exclusively in NSW and Queensland.

Go back decades and rugby league pinched the State of Origin concept from Aussie rules and made it their own. What goes around comes around and it seems the AFL is now jealous, with new boss Andrew Dillon reported to be quietly working in the background on a potential relaunch of State of Origin for Aussie rules.

Just last month, the AFL used its floating fixture to try to prick the NRL’s balloon in Perth. They scheduled a rare second Friday night game, involving the West Coast Eagles at Optus Stadium, to go head-to-head with the Dolphins and Sydney Roosters at HBF Park in the NRL’s only match in Perth this season.

The reality is all the one-upmanship is a bit petty. Australia is big enough for everyone. Those Perth matches in each code on August 2 will both attract big crowds.

Yes, it’s annoying the AFL felt the need to adopt an unusual schedule because the NRL game was happening. But fans will go watch what they want in the end. More than 45,000 people turned up to Optus Stadium last year for an NRL double-header, so rugby league stands on its own two feet in WA anyway.

Perth is big enough to host all sorts of events at the same time. In fact, with Greater Perth’s population of 2.3 million people and with Perth projected to leapfrog over Brisbane and become the nation’s third-biggest city, it’s time for the NRL to commit to a Perth team as part of the competition’s expansion.

If the NRL wants to be seen as Australia’s premier winter football code, then it just has to have a permanent presence in the west.

While a second team in New Zealand or a Federal Government-supported team in Papua New Guinea have their positives, Perth deserves to be first in line for an 18th licence as either a new stand alone team or merged entity with the North Sydney Bears or Newtown Jets.

Remember the doubts surrounding the Melbourne Storm coming into Aussie rules heartland in Victoria. Who would have thought that would work so well? The Storm have been hugely successful and don’t try to compete against the AFL but complement it.

Now I’m not saying a Perth team would win the premiership in its first year or even its first five years. But I really do find it difficult to see why it wouldn’t work long-term.

The State Government is supportive, a WA club should prove attractive for corporate backers and the sports-loving population base is there. Although there is a heavy bias towards Aussie rules, West Australians are parochial by nature and enjoy getting behind their teams in all sports.

The other NRL sides would have to travel a bit more but they are professional players and can manage one trip across the Nullarbor each season. The real travel burden would fall on the Perth team itself.

As a bonus, Perth’s time zone would enable live rugby league to be beamed into the east coast later at night, with the second leg of a Friday night double-header the obvious fit.

With few AFL matches played in the west on Friday nights, it’s a timeslot a Perth NRL team could really make their own.

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