Though Peter V’landys has a vice-like grip on the reins of the NRL, the 16 clubs that make up the premiership have a lot of power in their own right.
With three clubs in Queensland, one in Victoria, one in the ACT, one in regional New South Wales, one in New Zealand and nine in Sydney, it’s an interesting debate as to which club is the biggest and most influential rugby league organisation in the nation.
I list all clubs based on their membership numbers from 2019 and 2020 and divided by two to get the average. I did this to account for the impact of COVID-19 on fans not committing financially to their club this year.
Other factors I’ve considered are media coverage, both print and electronic, prime time TV games given, average 2019 home-and-away crowd figures, sponsorship and licensed club backing, history in the game, and other non-tangible factors, such as the influence they have within NRL HQ.
I have combined the average member count for 2019 and 2020 and added that to their 2019 crowd figure to give each team an index number. This number has an influence but is not definitive in determining the most powerful club.
For premierships won I’ve included the Broncos and Knights victories in 1997 as well as the joint venture team titles won as single entities before they merged. This figure is interesting but didn’t have much influence in my final decision – Wests Tigers are listed as having 16 titles, but that figures is made up of the Balmain Tigers, Western Suburbs and Wests Tigers.
This list will be built over five articles, with three teams featured in each. The last one will be the team I consider the most powerful NRL club.
8. Wests Tigers
Index total: 34,733
As a joint venture, the Wests Tigers have won a single premiership, in 2005. Who can forget the Benji Marshall flick pass? As the Tigers don’t have a leagues club, the Magpies have two hugely successful ones in Campbelltown and the juggernaut in Ashfield. As such, the much-maligned Magpies of the 1980s are now the paymasters in this joint venture.
This is the same Western Suburbs that the NSWRL wanted to kick out of the competition. Unlike Souths, they survived but, also unlike Souths, they are not a powerhouse.
Wests Tigers are well recorded in the Sydney press and have two home grounds, Leichhardt and Campbelltown, and juniors to contribute to the bottom line and regenerate the team. With good sponsorship money, a legion of former players on the various panel shows and the government contributing to a centre of excellence at their Concord Oval training, the future looks secure.
However, even though club legend Wayne Pearce is on the NRL commission, they have no special dispensation at HQ.
9. Penrith Panthers
Index total: 33,380
Another club backed by a hugely successful leagues club, the Panthers aren’t living hand to mouth. Like all such clubs, COVID-19 has ripped a massive gash in the cash cow. Having a state-of-the-art centre of excellence and real powerbrokers such as Phil Gould in their corner make the Panthers a stable club.
Another Super Saturday favourite at the foot of the mountains, they seem to make the headlines for their off-field machinations as much as they do for what happens on it.
10. St George Illawarra Dragons
Index total: 32,726
If the Panthers are the MGM Grand of the west, St George Leagues Club is more like the San Sauci Bowling Club. The ‘Taj Mahal’ was state of the art when the mighty Dragons were at the top of the pops more than John Farnham ever was. The club could fund a wildly successful team on the back of the Queen of the Nile, never paying out and the pots of Reschs Pilsener sold in the bar.
But the once mighty club is on the verge of crumbling onto the Princes Highway. Having been forced to merge with the Illawarra Steelers, the Saints have lost their identity. The club has a showpiece ground in Jubilee Oval and the club has installed statues and history boards outside the ground to celebrate the heritage of a once great club.
Having won a single joint-venture premiership under Wayne Bennett in 2010, the legacy of 11 premierships in a row give the Dragons a cache no other team has.
Popular on TV and with generous press coverage but with finances not up there with the best, the Saints aren’t in a position to be called a heavyweight.