NRL set to scrap US season opener

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo earlier this year after their win over Samoa. - Australia will play their first Test of the year against New Zealand on October 13 and are hopeful of meeting Tonga a week later after the King of Tonga personally phoned NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg to help revive the game. Photo credit: Photosport

SYDNEY, 04 SEPTEMBER 2018 (SMH) -The NRL is on the brink of scrapping plans to stage its season opener in the United States next year, unwilling to wear a loss of up to AUD$1 million on the match as rugby league’s American push stalls.

Fairfax Media understands that unless a white knight emerges within days to help underwrite the event the experiment will be shelved, six months after NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg used the season launch to outline his ambition for a first regular-season match outside Australasia.

But it is tempered with news there might be an imminent boost for the international game with a New Zealand-Tonga Test match looming to fill the void of the ill-fated mid-year Denver experiment.

The NRL’s reluctance to fly head first into the US next year will be a bitter blow for international proponents of the club game who had thrown their support behind the concept.

It was set to tap into the Hollywood pulling power of South Sydney co-owner Russell Crowe and Manly fan Hugh Jackman, whose two sides were in the frame to meet in Los Angeles to open the 2019 season.

The match was set to be played on a Sunday afternoon Australian time and had been given the working title “Round X”, staged a week before the rest of the other 14 sides featured in the opening round.

But the NRL privately concedes the game is now on life support with projections its bottom line could take a hit far in excess of the AUD$500,000 widely speculated.

Its only hope now is if an independent sponsor emerges willing to tip in a substantial amount of cash to help prop up the game, a scenario which seems unlikely given head office has been trying to balance the books on the match for months.

It is also believed that the American cause hasn’t been helped by the fact the NRL will cop a significant financial hit with its week one finals schedule after a number of 11th-hour changes.

The NRL was understood to have favoured Banc of California Stadium to stage the American foray, a venue which also hosts Major League Soccer team Los Angeles FC.

It had also engaged host broadcasters Nine and Fox Sports in protracted talks about covering the game.

But time and money has turned into the NRL’s enemy with all of its clubs keen to lock in their pre-season schedules for next year, which would require certainty around whether the US venture would go ahead.

While the game is now considered highly unlikely to happen, it’s believed Greenberg could deliver a huge boost for a couple of test-playing nations, with the New Zealand Rugby League angling for a mid-season international against Tonga in 2019 as compensation for hosting an end-of-season clash between Australia and the Mate Ma’a Tonga.

The NZRL, which is understood to be $400,000 out of pocket from the loss-making Denver Test on the stand-alone representative weekend in June, wants emerging power Tonga to fill the mid-season void.

New Zealand had expressed concerns about hosting the proposed Test between Australia and Tonga, fearful it would detract from the drawing capacity of the Kiwis’ own Test against the world champion Kangaroos a week before.

Australia will play their first Test of the year against New Zealand on October 13 and are hopeful of meeting Tonga a week later after the King of Tonga personally phoned Greenberg to help revive the game.

He could now watch the likes of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita line up against the Kiwis on the same weekend as the second State of Origin clash next year, increasing Tonga’s international schedule.

New Zealand is resigned to the three-year deal for Tests against England in Denver being torn up after the promoter failed to meet a deadline for his financial commitments.

It has sparked fresh fears about the 2025 World Cup, which also counts Moore Sports International’s Jason Moore as its promoter, being played on American soil.

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