The Titans mucked around, the Titans found out and ignited the Scramble for Queensland
The Dolphins’ Nundah coup was bloodless. Fomented by connections between the leadership of both clubs, the Devils raised the portcullis, expelled the garrison and invited the invaders in. This seemingly innocuous change of leadership has set in motion a strange chain of events. Tensions, barely simmering below the surface, between the great powers of Queensland rugby league have now been laid bare.
It’s time to pick a side.
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Only a few weeks ago, the spheres of influence in the south-east looked like this:
The Dolphins’ march to the south to capture Bishop Park has motivated the Broncos to do likewise. The Ponies recaptured Pizzey Park, a citadel held by heathens for the last fifteen years.
With the speed of an invading Mughal army bent on destruction and the defensive fortitude we’ve come to expect from the Gold Coast’s NRL franchise, the Titanate has been forced to retreat beyond the Tweed.
The events leading to the incorporation of the Burleigh Bears into the southern marches of the Brisbane Broncos imperium can be traced back to last year.
Then, the Titans CEO, Steve Mitchell, said:
“But we are also not fans of a seismic change to the Q-Cup that would be detrimental to the game in Queensland. We are trying to find a middle ground…
“There are definitely some that are very bullish supporters of a reserve grade competition. Ours is more about pathways and the ability to develop our player group to transition into first grade.
“We want to find a solution that gives us a little bit more influence in the way they’re coached and what they do, but not at the detriment of Queensland rugby league or the state cup.”
-Broncos slam national reserve grade competition, Courier Mail, 18 June 2022
But consider this, from earlier this year:
The Gold Coast Titans are pushing to launch their own reserve grade team next year and have even considered a move to NSW.
The Titans currently have a feeder arrangement with the Burleigh Bears and Tweed Heads Seagulls which sees them send players back to the Hostplus Cup each week.
But they are desperate to take control of their fringe and developing players by fielding their own reserves side by 2024 or 2025.
The most likely scenario will see them enter a Titans-branded team into the Hostplus Cup – Queensland’s top competition.
But the Titans have also talked about entering the NSW Cup if they can’t strike a deal to keep the team in Queensland.
If they do get a reserve team off the ground, it means they will no longer provide the Bears and Seagulls with players.
The Cowboys are also weighing up the structure of their feeder system.
In an ideal world, the Cowboys would field their own team in the Hostplus Cup, but the QRL has concerns about what that would do to the Northern Pride, Townsville Blackhawks and Mackay Cutters.
There is plenty happening in the background and Queensland’s top league could look vastly different in the coming years.
-Sport Confidential: Rugby league legend John Sattler’s dying wish, Courier Mail, 23 March 2023
Even from these two minor quotes, there’s two pretty interesting conclusions to draw.
The first is to compare the words of someone like Steve Mitchell with the actions of the Titans, as reported in the Courier Mail. While the Sport Confidential column is barely above rumour-mongering, as we now know, their mail on this issue has been accurate1. Mitchell can say things like the Titans are “not fans of a seismic change to the Q-Cup that would be detrimental to the game in Queensland” in the paper of record, while actively undertaking actions that would cause seismic changes to the QCup that would be detrimental to the game in Queensland. And why not! Words don’t have to mean anything. There’s no penalties for lying. In fact, the general public expect it, which is a damning indictment on modern life but one we do not have time to explore.
The second is that the Cowboys at least had the common sense to announce the changes to their feeder arrangements shortly before the 2023 season kicked off. The language the North Queenslanders used was defensive, indicating that they knew that they were going to upset many people, but the pre-emptive attack meant their barons in Cairns and Mackay lacked the time to find alternative feudal overlords.
The Titans have been hinting at this for twelve months now and surprise surprise, one of their barons decided they’d be better off with a different liege.
“When the Titans informed us of their intentions to field their own reserve grade team in 2024, it forced us into securing our own future in the state wide competition.”
-Paul Khan, Burleigh Bears chairman, Facebook, 7 July 2023
Because of course it did. It would be negligence for the Bears’ board to do anything else. If the goal is to win the Queensland Cup, NRL contracted players are the most valuable resource to that end. The Bears went to an organisation that would give them those resources, which in turn allows the Broncos to continue to pillage Gold Coast high schools for talent that can now play closer to home.
The Titans acted like a bunch of losers about it:
The Gold Coast Titans are disappointed to learn that the Burleigh Bears have chosen to align with an out of region NRL club in 2024.
The Titans and Bears have had a long affiliation, with the Titans investing in the club significantly over many years and by providing NRL quality players to support Burleigh’s Queensland Cup campaigns.
After meeting with the club earlier in the week and presenting to the chair, executive and coach, the Titans were informed that the Bears would move in a different direction next year.
The Titans are committed to the Gold Coast, developing local junior talent and producing pathways that lead to future NRL and NRLW stars representing our region.
We remain committed to developing the game across the Coast and competing in the Queensland Cup through the Tweed Seagulls.
The club will honour its commitment to the Burleigh Bears for the remainder of the year including the NRL players taking part in the match with PNG Hunters this weekend.
-Titans affiliate clubs update, Gold Coast Titans, 6 July 2023
Painting this as Burleigh being unfaithful to the Titans after Parkwood spent the last year publicly flirting with other opportunities is pathetic. Pretending the Titans are committed to Queensland Cup is insulting because, again, they were thinking about playing in the New South Wales competition. They might still!
The Titans have never made a good decision. Whether it was deciding to clad themselves in sky blue, landing on “Titans” after being denied “Dolphins”, every bum coach they've hired2, Jaryd Hayne, allowing themselves be a dumping ground for Penrith's least wanted, giving star players leverage to re-negotiate terms if there's a change of coaches, signing everyone up to 2026, down to what the Frizelles are deciding to eat for lunch today, none of it has been wise. We can extrapolate this to a creed that should be adopted by all rugby league executives: if the Titans think it’s a good idea, it is almost certainly a bad idea.
As a result, the Titans are empty. They've never had success or a mythos or over the last decade, even particularly likeable players. Their bind to the people of the Gold Coast metropolity, an area that stretches from the southern reaches of outer Brisbane to northern New South Wales and fades until it abuts the Knights’ territory, is far more tenuous than the Cowboys' unifying bind to the dispersed people of North Queensland.
When I wrote about Kyle Laybutt, the focus was very much on the misgudied attempts of the North Queensland Cowboys to transform into the Townsville Panthers. That story tapped into and gave a small voice to the very deeply felt frustrations of both the Pride and the Cutters, among others. The Gold Coast Titans have not come in for much scrutiny - for anything, much less their feeder relationships - because no one cares about the Titans. Their existence has failed to bring prestige or enrich lives in the way that the Broncos, Cowboys or even the Dolphins do. If Parkwood decided to turn their backs on Queensland, it would be disappointing but not surprising, and the state would carry on without them.
As is often the case, when the Titans were faced with a situation that required the will to compete, they gave up. Instead of working more closely with the Bears, the most successful exponent of Gold Coast rugby league in the modern era, to achieve their aims, the Titans were going to spurn them in the arrogant assumption they could somehow do better, despite all evidence to the contrary. When the Broncos ate their lunch, the Titans whinged about it. When the Queensland Rugby Leauge wouldn’t give them what they wanted, the Titans were going to, and may still, run away.
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In a surprisingly sophisticated turn for rugby league, there was a second theatre of this war. While the Broncos, Titans, Dolphins, Storm and Cowboys scramble to arrange their troops on the board, and conquer and relinquish various bases of operations, and extend and shrink their respective spheres of influence, the QRL and the NRL have exchanged salvos.
Last year, the NRL sued the NSWRL. The inciting incident was that Nick Politis of the Roosters and George Peponis of the Bulldogs wanted Dino Mezzatesta, formerly of the Sharks, appointed to the NSWRL board. That Mezzatesta had not spent enough time out of clubland to satisfy rules to manage obvious conflicts of interest didn’t enter Politis and Peponis’ calculations.
When Mezzatesta could not be nominated for the board, Politis and Peponis resigned and Peter V’Landys got involved. Despite hiring the high profile defender of legally-not-a-pedophile George Pell, the NRL lost in court3. The court found that the NRL could not demand new board elections of the NSWRL. The court also found that the NRL could alter their funding arrangements.
The suit made little strategic sense. I spun a few hypotheses, none of which really landed. Did the NRL want to cut the NSWRL’s funding and redirect it to the NRL clubs? Perhaps. Did the NRL want to take direct control of State of Origin? Maybe. Did the NRL simply want to run over an opponent to V’Landys’ grand vision of all three grades and running all player development through the NRL clubs? Probably.
I wondered when and in what form the war would come for Queensland. Whatever machinations were whirring in the brains of V’Landys and Abdo and others, the logic would apply equally to Queensland as it would to New South Wales.
When the Titans and the Cowboys wanted standalone teams in the Queensland Cup, that put the QRL in a difficult position. The QRL’s mandate is to be the controlling body of rugby league in Queensland, which according to the QRL constitution, requires them to “foster, develop, extend, govern and control directly and indirectly the Game in Queensland from junior and school levels to elite levels”. The Queensland NRL clubs are important stakeholders of the sport in this state, being its most visible face after the Maroons, but they appear to have no direct relationship with the QRL. What the NRL clubs think is good for them, does not necessarily align with the QRL’s stated mission.
New QRL CEO Ben Ikin put forward a diplomatic4 solution. The addition of the Titans and Cowboys to the Queensland Cup would have expanded the number of teams from 15 to 17, and so the cost to operate the competition would increase. With the Titans and Cowboys sucking playing talent out of their feeder clubs, the existing statewide clubs deserve some financial compensation. Therefore, the NRL should stump up the cash by increasing the QRL’s funding by about $4 million annually.
The NRL, unsurprisingly, said no and then tried to convince the NSWRL, the same body that the NRL tried to sue into submission last year, to accept the Titans and Cowboys into the NSW Cup.
Here’s what Ben Ikin said:
“We worked in good faith with the NRL to cost-up a hybrid solution that would allow the Titans and Cowboys to have second-tier teams in the Hostplus Cup from next year,” Ikin said.
“It came with two conditions. There would be extra funding for our state league clubs and competition logistics, and the new competition structure would proceed as a two-year trial.
“The ARLC rejected our proposal, which ironically the NRL helped design, but not before Andrew Abdo contacted the NSWRL and tried to convince them to let the Titans and Cowboys play their second-tier teams in the NSW Cup.
“That deeply offended the QRL, and rugby league people on the Gold Coast and in north Queensland should feel just as disappointed.
-QRL boss Ben Ikin slams Andrew Abdo after expansion plans collapse in $4m funding fiasco, Courier Mail, 7 July 2023
Now you can tell this is not an important issue to the administration, because it was left to Andrew Abdo to answer for this, instead of Peter V’Landys doing his usual lame impression of Donald Trump.
Abdo claimed that the NRL wasn’t given enough time to consider the offer5, despite Peter V’Landys being a man of action and imbuing that sentiment throughout his team, and the short deadline presumably felt more like a threat, than a serious offer. To be fair, the NRL is currently deep in negotiations with the RLPA over the enterprise agreement. It should be noted that the previous agreement expired nine months ago and the commencement of negotiations were delayed interminably by the NRL6. That may be taking up some of their time.
Abdo also claimed that the NRL, who turned a profit of $60 million last year and in excess of $50 million the year before, was not in a “position to fund an expanded Queensland competition”. To be fair, the NRL have never once told anyone what they plan to do with that money, presumably other than not paying players7. It should be noted that the NRL’s revenue is in large part funded by the broadcast deals, which in turn have value because you, the fan, sit there and watch the ads on Nine and pay a subscription to Fox. It’s always worth remembering that the NRL has zero accountability to you on how they spend your time and money on the game you love.
“We’ve been working on a national view for development of pathways, including the second-tier competitions,” he said.
“It’s important the Commission takes a broader view on development. We have the rest of the country, New Zealand and the Pacific as well.
“We’re working with our members on what the right development model is for them and many are seeking a vertically integrated model…
When asked about Ikin’s allegation that the NRL attempted to place the Titans and Cowboys in the NSW Cup, Abdo said: “I am having regular conversations with the QRL, NSWRL and all 17 NRL clubs about options and what their plans are.
“Have I had conversations with the QRL and NSWRL about second tier competitions and their view on expansion and clubs? Absolutely.”
“Unfortunately, it seems that Andrew Abdo continues to push for some version of national reserve grade, which is just another way to pork barrel NRL clubs by giving them more money and greater control of the supply chain.
“Not forgetting that Peter V’landys is on the public record saying he wants to bring back national reserve grade and he’ll run over anyone that stands in his way.
“The QRL will fight with everything we’ve got to protect our statewide competitions and clubs, and we’ll stand against any decision that negatively impacts on our rugby league communities across Queensland.
“We’ve got clubs, competitions and pathways that run from PNG all the way down the eastern seaboard into the Tweed that create more opportunity for more people in more places.
“We get unbelievable backing from the Queensland Premiers’ office, all the way through to local businesses across the state, who invest upwards of ten million dollars to support the work our state league clubs do in their communities.
“My advice to Andrew Abdo on our competition is – don’t mess with it, invest in it.”
Abdo’s words have the scent of rodent about them, and could be interpreted in one of two ways. The more generous interpretation is that what he’s said is literally true and has zero informational content. He talks to the clubs and the state bodies about various issues, many clubs wants a vertically integrated model (most already have one) and the NRL is looking at pathways across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific and the three statements are barely related to each other.
Then if the Titans or Cowboys wanted something that the QRL was unwilling to offer them, then in his capacity as the NRL’s grand vizier (and part-time court jester), he tried to help them by getting them into the NSW Cup. His allegiance is with the NRL clubs and not with the QRL, which makes it clear that a whole of game strategy has not been deployed at Phillip Street.
The less generous interpretation is that the statements are very much related and he is scheming for the NRL to take more control of rugby league in Australia and introduce national reserve grade along the way. There is some overlap between the interpretations.
Given no one has mentioned national reserve grade since it was a deemed dead and buried last year (presumably because of the costs that are being debated right here), I’m inclined to think it’s the more former than the latter but that would be giving Abdo the benefit of the doubt he has not earned.
Ikin has made it quite clear where the QRL stands. It seems to me that out of the two them, I would expect Ikin has a better grasp on the issues at hand, i.e. rugby league, Queensland, rugby league in Queensland. It may be that national reserve grade is the bogeyman he uses to fire up the base, which makes sense in a cynical Bernays-ian sort of way, or he may be speaking the truth about what the NRL intends to do but they lack the conviction to announce until it is a fait accompli.
Either way, it’s only the second time I can remember someone powerful within rugby league calling out anyone in the NRL administration. The first time was also Ben Ikin, while he was at the Broncos, over the same issue. You may recall that he called national reserve grade a “nostalgic thought bubble” and “ridiculous”.
This theatre is in the phase of proceedings that academics refer to as “phoney war”. Warning shots across the bow have been fired but it remains to be seen if real financial or adminstrative violence will follow.
Come what may, Ikin has drawn the battlelines. You’re either with the QRL, Broncos, the Dolphins and the 15 statewide clubs in preserving the fabric of rugby league in Queensland for the betterment of the game, or you’re with the selfish, cowardly and parochial Cowboys, Titans and (perhaps, probably) the NRL in trying to rip it up to serve their own ends.
While the QRL has some cultural and political sway, it is hard to imagine much of the rugby league public in Queensland rallying around the banner of preserving the esoteric feudal system of the QCup, a competition that attracts a fraction of the attention of the NRLM. The NRL has an arsenal of the Sydney-cucked Cowboys, the dipshit Titans, rubes in the media and bootlickers in the general public at its disposal and could easily deploy this to tip the battle for hearts and minds in Queensland in their favour, irrespective of the actual merit of what they propose.
Make no mistake: the hearts and minds of Queensland's rugby league public are what's at stake. Queensland rugby league’s back is to the wall. There’s little chance of victory against overwhelming southern opposition. Where have I heard that story before?
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A rare kudos for Messrs Badel and Meyn. If you strip away the hyperbole, there’s sometimes something there. I then put the hyperbole back on because it's fun.
Jim Lenihan is the obvious exception that proves the rule.
I wonder how much all that cost?
Certainly more diplomatic than I ever would have, which would have been to tell the Titans and Cowboys to “fuck off”. There’s a reason I write the newsletter.
“We are not yet in a position to consider an investment of the size proposed in an ultimatum style proposal in a two-week period.”
This came despite the NRL hiring Hugh Marks, former Nine CEO who “resigned” for fucking his assistant, to lead negotiations.
I infer that more money will go to clubs and the NRL will still be able to create its $300 million slush fund for investments-slash-political favours.