For the first time since 2017, the National Rugby League (NRL) hits Perth this Saturday with an epic double-header to be played at Optus Stadium.
The appetite for rugby league in Perth was underlined by massive crowds of almost 60,000 fans at both the 2019 and 2022 State of Origin games – between New South Wales vs Queensland – at Optus Stadium.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented NRL games being played in Perth in recent times, despite a three-year contract being struck with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in 2019. So this weekend’s NRL return is a welcome treat for local rugby league fans and it’s anticipated plenty of supporters will be flying in from over east for the double-header too, hence the WA Government’s investment.
It’s a double-header which means there’s two games back-to-back, with the Dolphins – who are a new franchise based out of Redcliffe in Brisbane’s northern suburbs – taking on the Newcastle Knights from 3.30pm on Saturday.
That’s followed by two finals contenders facing off, with the sixth-placed South Sydney Rabbitohs up against the seventh-placed Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks from 5:35pm WST on Saturday. Gates open at 2.30pm WST on Saturday. Tickets are available via Ticketmaster.
There’s also an opportunity to see both the Dolphins and Rabbitohs at open training sessions on Friday 4 August at Optus Stadium. The Rabbitohs will train from 9.30am-10.15am (register here) and the Dolphins will be on from 10.30am-11.30am.
What’s the NRL?
The NRL is the National Rugby League, which is the elite professional rugby league competition played in Australia. There are 17 teams; 10 from New South Wales, four from Queensland, one from Melbourne, one from Canberra and another based overseas in Auckland, titled the New Zealand Warriors.
The competition dates back to 1908 in NSW, becoming national in the 1990s, similar to how the AFL dates back to 1877 as the VFL. The reigning premiers are the Penrith Panthers, while the Rabbitohs have won the most titles with 21.
The season runs relatively concurrently to the AFL, starting in March and concluding with finals in September/October. The upcoming round is Round 23, with five rounds to play before finals, with the Panthers currently top of the ladder, followed by the well-supported Brisbane Broncos.
Who are the Dolphins, Knights, Rabbitohs and Sharks?
The Dolphins are led by legendary NRL coach Wayne Bennett but sit 13th and appear destined to miss the finals after losing six of their past eight games, despite a fairytale start to their maiden campaign, winning their first three games. Dolphins winger Jamayne Isaako is the NRL’s leading points scorer for 2023 with 183 points.
The Knights are ninth and have won their past four games to storm into finals contention, with Port Hedland-born captain Kalyn Ponga helping their charge, after overcoming concussion issues earlier in the year. Newcastle winger Dom Young leads the NRL this season for tries with 20.
South Sydney were preliminary finalists last year but are on shaky ground this campaign, losing four of their past six games to put their top-eight aspirations at risk, having been top of the ladder after Round 11. Alex Johnston has 18 tries this year and leads the league for linebreaks with 27, with well-known five-eighth Cody Walker offering 21 try assists this year.
The Sharks have lost their last three games to slide into a battle for a finals berth, having made the top eight in nine of the past 11 seasons, including winning the NRL premiership in 2016. Ronaldo Mulitalo is a try machine, while half-back Nicho Hynes is among the league’s best for assists.
Where’s the WA team?
Perth doesn’t have an NRL team and hasn’t had one since the Western Reds, who were formed in 1992 but only lasted in the big league until 1997. They did re-form in 2006 but only played locally until 2011. There’s been some talk of a WA team since, including a franchise titled the West Coast Pirates created by NRL WA. The addition of the Dolphins to the NRL in 2023, making the competition an uneven 17 teams, has fueled speculation about an 18th licence, which may be WA’s avenue back in, although it’s very preliminary.
In the past, teams have reached agreements to play in Perth, with a near-capacity 20,000 supporters turning out each time three years in a row from 2013 to 2015 at HBF Park when the Rabbitohs hosted the New Zealand Warriors, likely tapping into the local Kiwi community. Crowds started to dip at Perth games in 2016 and 2017, so there were none in 2018, but it was set to be revived by the Bulldogs after witnessing 59,721 fans attend the 2019 State of Origin, only for our borders to go up amid the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing NRL teams playing in WA. With 59,358 fans turning out for last year’s State of Origin game in Perth, NRL is back in town.
Why are these games at Optus Stadium?
Indeed, it’s pretty unlikely we’ll see a repeat of the crowds of 60,000 for the State of Origin games and the last game in Perth in 2017 only attracted 6,258 fans, so this is a valid question. The boutique HBF Park, with a capacity of 20,500, is unavailable due to the Women’s World Cup whereby the tournament organiser FIFA, has exclusive rights to the venue during that event and two weeks prior, largely to ensure the pitch is in good shape.
Who should we support?
Now, that’s a tough question. Everyone has their own affiliation, but if you’re totally neutral, we’ve got a few points of differentiation for you:
The Rabbitohs have played in Perth plenty of times in the past, including those popular games from 2013 to 2015 against the Warriors, so there is some pre-existing WA loyalty. If you like the underdog, perhaps the Dolphins are for you, as a start-up first-year franchise.
For some WA flavour, the Knights boast Ponga, who was born in Port Hedland and lived in Newman until he was about two before he and his family moved to Queensland. Ponga is an out-and-out star, as a Queensland State of Origin rep, former Dally M award runner-up (the equivalent of the Brownlow medal) and the current Knights captain.
On the same theme, Sharks prop Royce Hunt spent time in Kalgoorlie in his youth, and played in the WARL for Willagee Bears and Goldfields Titans.
Whoever you do support, the bigger the crowd, the better the case for a WA NRL team in the future.
Grab more info on game day here.
Image Credit: Optus Stadium, Newcastle Knights, Getty