Rugby League

‘An enormous market’: Abdo backs New Zealand for 18th NRL team

NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo has indicated an 18th team would likely come from New Zealand, with the code needing to source new talent, evidenced by the Dolphins drawing players from a shallow talent pool.

“There’s no doubt New Zealand is an enormous market for us,” he said. “Some of our best players in recent years have come from New Zealand and we’re certainly committed to investing in the region and seeing more talent unlocked and emerge through pathways systems. New Zealand is a critical component of our competition.

“In particular, the commission is focused on innovative measures to enhance the pathways systems and it’s something our clubs are focused on as well.”

Drawing promising rugby union players from New Zealand will not have the same inflationary effect as the Dolphins’ recruiting drive in the NRL, where $400,000 salaried players courted by the expansion club will soon be paid $600,000.

Nor would it create the salary divide at some NRL clubs where payments to targeted players, upgraded as a result of the Dolphins raid, consume a disproportionate amount of the salary cap compared to the rest of the playing group. Such disparities, particularly when salaries are publicised and rival coaches blatantly advertise their interest, can create discord at a club.

The traditional argument against a second New Zealand team joining the NRL is that it would not bring significant revenue to the NRL pie. However, the recent broadcasting deal with Sky NZ saw TV rights income increase 70 per cent to over $30m a year until the end of 2027.

NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo.Credit:Getty

However, Abdo insists the ARLC’s first priority is ensuring the Dolphins are competitive before looking to New Zealand. “In terms of expansion, our priority is ensuring the Dolphins enter the competition successfully and a successful 17-team competition,” he said. “Beyond that, the commission is open to looking at 18 teams down the track and open-minded about the location of potential new markets.”

Papua New Guinea will also lodge a bid to join the NRL as its 18th team, announcing the move on Wednesday.

Dolphins coach Wayne Bennett has recruited from the existing NRL player pool, largely ignoring Pasifika talent. He has secured three top forwards from the Storm and other players from NSW, including Isaiya Katoa, an 18-year-old halfback from Penrith’s development squad on a rumoured $500,000. It’s a clever recruiting tactic to look for a good reserve-grader blocked off by a superior player. With Nathan Cleary only 24 and signed long-term, Katoa would have had a long wait for the Panthers No.7 jumper.

Surprisingly, Bennett has not focused on Queensland juniors, despite homegrown players being the long-term heartbeat of a club. Perhaps the scouting system Bennett built at the Broncos has come back to bite him.

While NRL clubs are focused on developing pathways for players to the top grade, they are less interested in building participation numbers.

“A key priority for the commission is both participation and pathways,” Abdo said.

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