PNG high on the cards for NRL expansion, says Australian rugby league boss

Photo: PNG Hunters/Facebook

Australian Rugby League Commission boss Peter V’landys has revealed plans for an expanded National Rugby League competition by 2026 with Papua New Guinea at the “top of the list” to win the code’s coveted 18th license.

News Corp can reveal rugby league’s multi-faceted strategic blueprint for the NRL to tap into a second overseas market in PNG under the code’s Operation ‘Turbo Charge’ expansion drive.

The PNG Government is ready and will be putting together K30 million for its bid for the 2026 season. And with this mind, plans are already in motion in the rugby league mad country where Rugby is the number one sport.

Minister for Sport Don Polye confirmed the expansion plans and the meetings with Australian officials in PNG.

“We are not only looking to the plans for PNG team in rugby but we are also looking at ensuring that our chances and our plans will sustain the plans for expansion of Rugby League in the country,” Minister Polye said.

V’landys confirmed the ARL Commission has begun negotiations with the Australian government for PNG to enter the NRL.

The NRL already has a presence in New Zealand via the Warriors and the rousing success of new 17th franchise the Dolphins this season has given the ARL Commission confidence to take the Telstra Premiership to the Pacific.

ARL Commissioner Kate Jones was invited by the federal government a fortnight ago to join a trade mission to Papua New Guinea, where the former Queensland state government minister held talks with local league officials.

Now V’landys is ready to step up the NRL’s expansion project, with rugby league-besotted PNG regarded as the jewel in the crown of a mooted 18th Pasifika franchise that would be partly bankrolled by the federal government.

Industry experts suggest an 18th team is worth an extra $375 million in the NRL’s next TV rights deal _ and V’landys says another wave of NRL expansion is closer than many believe.

“If time permits, we want to look at another NRL team for 2026,” V’landys told News Corp.

“I think expansion can be earlier than 2027.

“We will look at this issue quickly _ we aren’t going to drag it (expansion) out.

“We have been doing some preliminary work behind the scenes on expansion, but we are ready to go into ‘Turbo Charge’ mode.

“The ARL Commission has this new saying when we are investigating something … the project will be turbo-charged.

“That means the issue will be a priority for the Commission.

He saids expansion is about to be turbo charged, things will happen very quickly and they will be turning our attention to expanding the NRL competition very soon.

“We want rugby league be in the heart, souls and minds of people and that extends to PNG,” he said

Due diligence on expansion could begin within a fortnight, pending the ARL Commission rubber-stamping plans for the NRL to kick off their 2024 premiership season with a double header in Las Vegas next year.

The Brisbane Tigers last month formally announced their $25 million bid to enter the NRL as Queensland’s fifth club and other expansion target markets include Perth, Adelaide and a second team in New Zealand.

But Papua New Guinea, who first expressed interest in joining the NRL 15 years ago, have rocketed into favouritism.

The addition of an NRL team in PNG would be a political coup for Australia, which is ready to deploy “rugby league diplomacy” to combat China’s potential incursion into the Pacific region.

“PNG is on the top of the list at the moment for expansion,” V’landys said.

“We are in commercially-sensitive discussions with the federal government.

“Naturally we want to assist the government in Australia’s national security and we see unlimited potential in a PNG team.

 “The federal government is right behind this. We have a very good relationship with the prime minister (Anthony Albanese), the sports minister (Anika Wells) and Pat Conroy (defence minister), so we will start some pretty deep negotiations with them in the next few weeks.

He said PNG is certainly high on the cards for NRL expansion.

There has been speculation surrounding the North Sydney Bears joining forces with a Pasifika franchise, but V’landys made it clear any Pacific NRL licence must be spearheaded by PNG.

The ARL Commission chairman stressed other regions such as Perth and Queensland have not been dismissed, with the NRL open to expanding to a 20-team competition by the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.

“It will all be one bid _ we won’t have a team in Papua New Guinea and then a separate Pasifika franchise,” V’landys said.

“We’d love to see it as an overall Pacific strategy where there will be other nations involved in Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, but PNG will be the key part of the bid.

“The harder part is apportioning a possible NRL licence between those nations, but that’s to be done in the due diligence.”

It is understood the federal government is prepared to provide $20-25 million annually to a PNG-led Pasifika franchise.

No specific money was allocated in the May budget for a PNG team bid, but $89.5m was set aside over four years to “deepen Pacific connections by strengthening cultural and people-to-people ties with the region and promote shared values”.

One proposal is for the far north Queensland town of Cairns to be a full-time base for a Pasifika club, but V’landys said any PNG headquarters has not been locked in.

“At this stage, we are keeping an open mind in terms of location.”

He said Cairns has been mentioned, but there is not a set destination.

“We have to investigate whether a PNG team could be part of a joint venture with other entities like North Sydney Bears or the Brisbane Tigers.

“Perth is another location.

He said if they were to reward someone for passion and determination, it would give it to Perth, because they have been so determined to get a side in the NRL.

An 18-team competition gives the NRL an extra bargaining chip in broadcast talks.

Not only would the NRL be able to sell a ninth weekly game to Fox and Channel 9, but V’landys believes a Pasifika franchise in the NRL can be an educational weapon for Papua New Guinea.

“It’s important for our broadcast negotiations because that would give us a ninth NRL game every week to take to the broadcasters,” he said.

“That’s the one thing the AFL has always had over us.

“They always have that extra game they can leverage to get paid for, we don’t have an extra game, but we will with 18 teams.

“We have a multi-faceted plan. This is not just a benefit for the NRL. We can assist people in PNG and the Pacific in many, many ways. Sport is an amazing tool in building communities and building relationships and building hope.

“There’s 17 million people in Papua New Guinea. There’s 25 million in Australia, so when you look at it it’s a very big country and basically their religion is the NRL and rugby league.

He said it’s not simply just having an 18th team, they have plans to have an education and sporting syllabus in schools in PNG, Tonga and Samoa, where rugby league will be at the top of the list for their physical exercise and can also help academically.

“A PNG team would have kids in that nation playing rugby league, participating in sport and having a pathway to success at the elite level of the NRL.”

Asked if Australian NRL stars would be concerned about the potential dangers of living in PNG, V’landys said: “I don’t believe safety is a concern.

“We will make PNG a safer place by having this relationship. “The locals idolise rugby league players, so the NRL can help PNG thrive as a nation,” he said.