Off the Wall

The battle for the hearts and minds of football fans won't be fought by the signing of the likes of Karmichael Hunt for hundreds of thousands more than they are worth. It will be fought on the football fields in suburban Sydney and Brisbane. On the day one national official in our game took a stand that did not involve fawning over Hunt, the Sydney Daily Telegraph reported just how fierce the battle between the NRL and the AFL is becoming.

Geoff Carr, the CEO of the ARL, got it right when he made it very clear that Hunt will have to fight for the $60,000 the game has put in a pension fund for him - a fund that was set up as a part of the agreement some years ago to give Origin players a greater share of the profits from the game's biggest money earner.

The game must take a stand on players who allow themselves to be used to promote a rival code. And that is what Karmichael Hunt has done.

As I have written many times in recent years, neither soccer or rugby union are the real threat to rugby league. The real threat comes from an aggressive and cashed up AFL.

The AFL is moving into Western Sydney and the Gold Coast to boost its television numbers - and when it comes to television rights, the NRL is in direct competition with the AFL. That is why the AFL is tipping millions into the lucrative Western Sydney and South east Queensland markets.

And if the AFL can afford to tip one million plus into one rugby league player, then its war chest is even greater than I had thought, or feared.

The AFL will spend millions on junior football in Western Sydney and South East Queensland. Somehow or other, rugby league will have to try and match that.

Already the AFL is subsidising junior registration fees in Brisbane...and that is making registering to play Australian Rules more attractive than rugby league for many families in low to medium income communities.

The Telegraph story starkly highlighted the head start rugby league has - but it one that must not give cause to complacency.

At Whalan Reserve, between the league heartland suburbs of St Mary's and Mt Druitt, 1,200 junior league players were on the fields, with just 100 rules players sharing the ovals with them.

We might be well in front, but the AFL will put serious money into recruiting players in schools, and at the junior levels, as it has done in Brisbane in recent years.

We have no choice but to try and match its outlays. The NRL is clearly not flushed with funds, nor are most clubs. But we have to give priority to the game's future as well as its present.

Securing the games future requires far sighted strategies - greater community engagement, maximising our already stranglehold on Pacific Islander juniors, do even more to attract indigenous players, and look at ways playing the game can be made more affordable for boys - and girls - from low income families.

And it also requires an end to fawning over the Karmichael Hunt's who take the AFL's booty knowing full well that they are being paid far more than they are worth as part of a PR stunt targeting the game that has made them well off, and well know.

On this one, Geoff Carr is right on the mark!

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