The second the Christmas tree is packed away for another year, NRL clubs face off in a series of preseason hit outs, for the purpose of both sussing out player progress, as well as providing a spectacle in the off-season for the fans – because cricket and tennis can only take you so far.
However, the concept of summer footy has arguably become something of a monster, with the Auckland Nines surfacing as an annual bout several years ago, as well as the World Club Challenge, Charity Shield, and numerous trial matches scattered throughout February.
There’s been a lot of hype in the media about the place of trial matches and pre-season competitions in the NRL.
Most bemoan the absurdity of putting the players through the motions when it’s pushing 40 degrees outside.
Others focus on the need to bubble-wrap the blokes until the season officially kicks off – after all, some of these are million dollar investments.
However, I contend that the real gripe stems from the behemoth of preseason shit going on, which will inevitably lead to the over-saturation of rugby league - in much the same way as this season of My Kitchen Rules will go unwatched in my household, given that the last lot of contestants seemed to only wrap filming a week or so ago.
And just as sure as Manu’s French accent getting thicker each year, the preseason contests will slowly begin to lose all meaning. We’re already witnessing it now. Just look at the lacklustre Nines crowd this year.
To be fair to the fans, it’s hard to commit to sitting through sweltering heat to watch a second-rate side run out for a dead-rubber game – which is what every trial game is.
Even incentivising it hasn’t really worked, with clubs desperate to avoid playing their best men in the Nines competition in fear of players picking up serious injuries.
So what’s the solution? To axe trial games altogether is one option. But this seems like a waste of a good product in desperate need of a rebrand.
Instead, the best way to capitalise on the long six month break between seasons is to play a Nines-equivalent tournament, but to have that as the only preseason action going around.
And if it were to be facilitated much like the success of the All Stars concept when it was first introduced – with players you’ve actually heard of running around – there could be a real market for such a competition.
The brilliance of the Nines is that it’s adapted to the conditions and has the makings of being a real spectacle. If the NRL can iron out the creases and facilitate a contest in a similar format but with better pacing and talent available, we could be onto a real winner.
Natalie is an NRL tragic.