Months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between NZRL and its Australian counterpart have paid dividends, with the NRL prioritising the trans-Tasman pathway in its plans for future player development.
The NRL’s head of game strategy & development, Shane Richardson, has outlined a blueprint for taking rugby league into the next decade and confirmed that New Zealand Rugby League was a key partner in this proposal.
“Forty percent of our players are of Polynesian background, which is wonderful for our sport, but they grew up in New Zealand,” he told media, from Sydney. “We’ve got to do far more and consider them far more in their view of the whole game than we are now.
“We can’t just rape and pillage the players across here, and not do something about what they’re actually doing over there.
“It’s alright to sit there and criticise New Zealand Rugby League, but when you’re on the smell of the oily rag that depends on test matches and whether it rains or not to be able to operate a league, it’s the wrong way of going.”
Richardson’s words reflect the growth of a more strategic trans-Tasman relationship.
Late last year, NZRL chief executive Phil Holden and board chairman Garry Fissenden presented to the ARLC board on the need and opportunity that existed, if the two countries became more aligned.
“We were determined to move the relationship from a casual one to one that was more robust and strategically aligned,” says Holden. “Since that presentation, we have been diligently and quietly working behind the scenes with Shane on shaping the thoughts and the New Zealand impact through his ‘whole game’ strategy.
“The new pathways and approach are great news to us, and a reward for the number of trans-Tasman trips we’ve made over the past 12 months. One of our key messages to the ARLC has been around player welfare and the need for more support for our development programmes, given that many of our young men end up on their doorsteps as teenagers.
“NZRL plays an integral part in how well those players perform on and off the field, but we need more resources to improve our delivery of those programmes. This week’s announcement confirms what we knew, that our petitioning has been heard and understood.”
The exact details of a revitalised pathway structure are still being worked through. NZRL will be the key partner with the NRL in determining what the NZ structure looks like and will lead the thinking on whether a second NZ-based reserve-grade team, contesting the NRL feeder competition, is based out of Wellington or Christchurch, for example.
There have also been other discussions around NZ sides entering the SG Ball Cup (18s) and Harold Matthews Cup (16s) in Sydney. All these steps are designed to keep local players closer to home, while they are developed to NRL standard.
“There are obvious challenges around funding and who would manage those teams,” says Holden. “But we’re very engaged in that process and look forward to playing a leading role in finding those solutions down the track.”
Holden won’t be part of those conversations, having resigned from his role last week, but he has the satisfaction of seeing his efforts setting a solid platform for the game in New Zealand.
In their latest funding rounds, Sport NZ and High Performance Sport NZ have collectively pledged nearly $4 million to NZRL over the next four years for projects ranging from the NZ Kiwis’ World Cup campaign to community initiatives at grassroots.
“It’s certainly gratifying to see the good work we do recognised in such a tangible way.”