NRL boss Dave Smith, in Auckland for the Nines, tells Fairfax Media in an exclusive interview about his organisation's plans for New Zealand.
The Nines is just the tip of the iceberg.
If NRL boss Dave Smith has his way, the tournament will be a key piece in his "think big" strategy, designed to put behind league's bumpy past of the past two decades behind it and finally realise the code's true potential in Australia and beyond.
"Beyond" includes New Zealand, where the Auckland tournament is set to become a powerful linchpin in a strategy designed to grow the organisation's profile in New Zealand.
Smith, a Welshman, doesn't need to be told about rugby union's ability to grip a country. He skilfully avoids any quotes, however, that could be construed as taking on the No. 1 code in this nation.
But in little over a year in one of the hottest jobs in international sport, Smith is demonstrating that his "think big" strategy is not just talk.
He didn't hesitate to embrace the joint Auckland council-Duco Events proposal for a nines tournament and ensured buy-in from all 16 NRL clubs. Yesterday suggested a powerful elixir has been brewed.
Only one day into the event's life, it must already have organisers of Wellington's rugby sevens tournament quaking. Already, nines league looks a more riveting spectacle than sevens rugby.
Smith's interest in New Zealand is obvious, describing it as a "core market" that the NRL is committed to growing.
"This event [the Nines] is going to showcase the game but it's also a sign of our continued commitment to New Zealand," he said. "Something like 20 per cent of our NRL players are of New Zealand heritage and much more from a Pacific Island perspective.
"Quite clearly this is a really, really important market for us. We are doing a fair amount and what we need to do is continue to think openly about how we develop the game across New Zealand."
Smith is careful with his words. But his excitement about New Zealand's potential is palpable. His second-in-command, Jim Doyle, a former CEO of the New Zealand Rugby League, has undoubtedly alerted him to the growth opportunity.
Doyle was stymied by lack of financial investment in league when he ran the NZRL, something the national body still suffers from. But the NRL brings financial grunt that even the New Zealand Rugby Union should fear in any battle for the attention of fans and talented teenage playing prospects.
Smith felt the nines format had immense growth potential, confirming he would be interested in seeing it become a regular fixture at future Commonwealth Games, and reaffirming a three-year hosting commitment to Auckland with a two-year option.
Any discussion on New Zealand inevitably leads to the subject of a second NRL franchise here. Already Wellington is looking to ride off the increased interest from the organisation.
Smith has already made it clear the NRL won't consider the prospect of expanding the competition for some time, although he confirmed a wide-ranging review of its competitions would begin later this year and it would determine whether there is room for more franchises.
A potential second NRL franchise in New Zealand would fit in with the visionary Smith's strategy.
But at the same time, the former banker won't rush any decision. "Whenever you are thinking about growing something, you need to sit down and do the work to make sure you really understand the markets you are operating in and how you want to take it forward," he said. "When we do look at it, we will look at it really thoroughly and in-depth and at that point we will understand where all the pieces are. Then we can start to make big strategic decisions for the right reasons and you can do it with confidence that it's a secure investment that will take the game forward."
- Sunday Star Times
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