The early nineties were a stellar time for rugby league. Canberra and Brisbane’s domination helped the NSWRL expand its suburban Sydney roots, Tina Turner’s rock anthems promoted the Winfield Cup, the new 10 metre ruled opened the game up for more attacking footy and there was some decent pre-season footy.
Starting as the Channel Ten Cup (1990) and then the Lotto Challenge (1991), the Tooheys Challenge lasted from 1992 to 1995, coexisting with the wonderful World Sevens. Amazingly, this was an era when coaches let their players play some meaningful footy in February.
As great as the Auckland Nines is, the complaining by some officials could jeapoardise it, with its future uncertain from 2018.
Is it worth reviving the pre-season knockout tournament?
There are plenty of advantages.
If worried coaches don’t want to commit their best teams, it won’t discredit the tournament, as they’ll probably be eliminated in the first round anyway. This frees up teams to play trial matches or continue to wrap their stars in cotton wool until the “proper” footy stars in March.
For teams who are fair dinkum about it, the rewards are there. A potential four weeks of must-win footy will give teams vital momentum leading to round one as well as test new players under match conditions. Back in the nineties, Canberra (1990 and 1993) and Brisbane (1991 and 1995) won it twice. Souths won in 1994 and enjoyed a bright start to the premiership before finishing ninth. Illawarra’s 1992 victory led to their maiden finals appearance that September. It shows that momentum gained in February pays off.
A revived knockout tournament would take the game to country areas. A month of meaningful footy – spanning NSW and Queensland – would be more beneficial than the outdated NSW Origin trial or the occasional premiership game.
Let’s say the knockout tournament comes back in 2018. The first weekend would feature a full eight games, perfect for fans starved of footy since October. The second weekend would be the quarter finals, semi finals in week three and the grand final in week four, ideally played a fortnight before round one.
ROUND OF 16: Thursday night (Nine), Friday night (Nine), three games Saturday afternoon/Saturday night (Foxtel), two Sunday afternoon games (2pm game on Foxtel, 4pm game on Nine), Sunday night game (Foxtel)
QUARTER FINALS: Friday night game (Nine); Saturday afternoon and Saturday night (Foxtel double-header); Sunday afternoon (Nine)
SEMI-FINALS: Friday night (Nine), Saturday night (Foxtel)
GRAND FINAL: Friday night (Nine).
That’s a total of 15 games with an even spread between Nine and Foxtel.
While club politics means it probably won’t happen and we’ll be stuck with risk-free trial games, a new knockout tournament would give fans some decent footy to watch in February.