Last week the NRL saw the worst crowds in 30 years, which merely highlights the larger issue: Where have all the players worth watching gone?

While the first week of the NRL finals produced four close results, it was the closeness in scores that created most of the excitement, rather than any individual brilliance. This should concern the NRL greatly because it is having a lasting impact on its popularity. Last weekend, the crowds were the worst in 30 years, and I believe the standard of play is to blame. What is obviously lacking is excitement, and those who can create it – game breakers, if you will.

Of the six teams left, there are just eight players who I would award that label: Mitchell Moses (Parramatta), Latrell Mitchell (Sydney Roosters), Anthony Milford (Brisbane Broncos), Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers), Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith (Melbourne Storm), and Michael Morgan (North Queensland Cowboys).

Eight out of a possible 102 left in the competition. This says a great deal about the problems of their grassroots recruitment system, and their failure to produce the next crop of talented youngsters. I don’t see anyone ready to fill the magic boots of Johnathon Thurston and I find it amazing that Queensland junior rugby league has not produced another star halfback since his move to North Queensland in 2004.

Apparently, Penrith under Phil Gould has established a Half Back Academy which is a positive move because let’s face it, it is the champions who bring people to the game and given the poor attendances of the NRL finals compared to the AFL, it shows that Rugby League desperately needs to follow their example.

Despite the AFL religion being church in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, the general assumption is that Sydney continues to show resistance to the gospel. I don’t believe so, however. The Swans got a record 46,000 people to witness a one-sided semi final last weekend against Essendon. It is amazing what 11 million dollars will buy in the name of Buddy Franklin.

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The AFL has heavily invested in junior development for many years through their Auskick program of weekend clinics for boys and girls across the nation. Here in Sydney, they have overrun the North Shore North Western suburbs and the West. When there is a Swans game on at the SCG, the trains are packed with red and white regalia worn by families and kids.

More than 234,000 attended the AFL finals last weekend, while only 78,000 attended the NRL finals in week one. That is embarrassing and in effect, the NRL had to give away tickets to get any sort of a crowd. This week Brisbane will pack them in, but elsewhere the bums on seats are not there, and the reason: the game is now boring.

It all gets back to having a host of champions playing your sport and the kids who to be them when they grow up. Simply, the NRL’s game-breaker kitchen is empty and the game is at fault; the NRL website is a gambling site and does little to excite kids, and there are no creative strategies in place to bring the champions like Thurston to the next generation.

Despite its billion dollar TV rights and sponsorships, the NRL is suddenly struggling to win popularity and growth, because it has taken its eye off the recruitment ball. A message to Todd Greenberg: prioritise grassroots and recruitment if you want to catch the quicksilver legs of the AFL.

Game on.


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