Andrew Johns says a potential NRL conference system would rob rugby league of its biggest-ever game.

Andrew Johns says a potential NRL conference system would rob rugby league of its biggest-ever game: the long-anticipated first Rabbitohs vs Roosters grand final since 1935.

With a push towards an 18-team competition, featuring a second team in Brisbane and likely New Zealand, a conference system has been touted as the best way to manage an expanded NRL.

There would be a Sydney and a non-Sydney conference. Teams would play sides in their conference twice and in the other conference once; then play separate conference finals series, then a grand final between the two conference winners, similar to the NFL’s Super Bowl and the NBA Finals.

“I don’t like it. We’ve got to have foundation clubs have the opportunity to play each other in a grand final,” Johns, a rugby league Immortal, said on Wide World of Sports’ Freddy and the Eighth.

“How long since the Roosters have played South Sydney in a grand final? Could you imagine how big that occasion would be?

“You talk about hate – they hate each other. That can never happen [in a conference system]. Hypothetically, if this conference happened, traditional foundation clubs could never play each other.”

NRL legend Brad Fittler said that the increase in local rivalry games was a must, yet the divided finals series was a dud. He backed the conference system to work through the home and away season but suggested that it should still be followed by a combined finals series.

“I think having the Sydney teams play each other twice works famously,” Fittler said on Freddy and the Eighth.

“That means you get the rivalry through the year, you play a home and away game each, so that works great. You’ve got the Brisbane rivalries that are going on and obviously the Kiwis and Melbourne.

“Maybe you bring them together at the end and put them all together and give them a position, so that allows [local rivalry grand finals].

“It would be very disappointing to ever think Souths and the Roosters were never going to play each other, or Penrith and Parramatta, or however you want to put it.”

The Roosters beat the Rabbitohs in a 2018 preliminary final; the closest current equivalent of a conference final. A capacity crowd of 44,380 attended the Sydney Football Stadium match; a grand final between the clubs would undoubtedly have filled the 83,500-capacity Stadium Australia and provided a monumental week of build-up, for a game nearly a century in the making.

It remains to be seen if NRL fans would be satisfied with local rivalries being locked out of the grand final and decided instead in conference finals. The concept as currently touted may rely on conference finals taking on a life of their own, without detracting from the importance of the grand final. Otherwise, combined finals may remain the preferred status quo.

The problem is not just confined to Sydney. The 2015 grand final, won by North Queensland over Brisbane in golden point, is regarded as the greatest decider of the NRL era and could not have happened under a separated conference system.

The conference concept is being explored by NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo. It has heavyweight backing from the likes of Wayne Bennett and Phil Gould.

Gould has long advocated for the system and predicted that it could be introduced by the 2026 season. He said that it could provide the NRL with a revenue bonanza in a future broadcasting deal.

“I’ve always been of the thought that every time you come up to negotiate a broadcast-rights deal you should have something different for the broadcasters,” Gould said on his Six Tackles with Gus podcast.

“You should have a point of difference or a new product or a new competition or something that is a greater selling point.

“Unfortunately for the last few broadcast-rights deals, we’ve had nothing different. We tweak a few rules and hopefully that makes a difference but we haven’t really expanded the game.

“You’re negotiating your 2028 deal and you start talking about that in 2026. ‘Well here’s our 18-team comp. How do you like this?'”

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