Chief Rugby League Reporter
British billionaire Marwan Koukash is behind an audacious bid to introduce an English club into an expanded NRL competition.
Fairfax Media can reveal that Koukash, who owns English club Salford Red Devils, has already secured an international airline to sponsor the budding franchise.
The development comes just days after former South Sydney chief executive Shane Richardson was announced as the NRL's head of game strategy and development as part of the governing body's push to broaden rugby league's international footprint.
The issue of expansion will again be on the Australian Rugby League Commission's agenda when the present broadcast deal expires at the end of 2017.
While bids for new teams in New Zealand, Queensland, Perth and the central coast in an expanded competition have been mooted for some time, this is the first attempt to introduce an English-based franchise into the league's premier competition.
"This the only way the sport is going to grow, through integration between the two competitions," Koukash told Fairfax Media.
"I have asked the NRL if it would ever allow an English side to play in the NRL. The way it would work is you apply for a franchise and assemble a team over here that operates under the same salary cap as the NRL.
"The team would come over to Australia to play all of its away games. Over three months they would play about a dozen games.
"Then we would come back to England and host an Aussie team every week. The way we would do it is we'd take it to places like London, Manchester, areas outside the traditional geographical area of rugby league here.
"Imagine bringing Souths and Brisbane and playing in London against a British team. That would be massive.
"Some of those games could be played in places like Dubai and [Las] Vegas. It's about growing the sport globally."
In an acknowledgment of the importance of the English game, the traditional World Club Challenge has been expanded this year to include six teams, three from each hemisphere.
Brisbane and St George Illawarra will join premiers South Sydney in taking on the best of the British – Warrington, Wigan and reigning champions St Helens. But the new proposal will ensure there is a weekly clash between Australia and England if the NRL gives it the green light.
Koukash said he had discussed his vision with NRL boss Dave Smith late last year and was planning to travel to Australia in March to further outline his proposal.
While there will be logistical challenges due to the tyranny of distance – the scheduling of byes for travelling Australian teams will be crucial – Koukash believes they could be overcome.
"If, for example, you play the Gold Coast [in England], they could play the week before on the Thursday," he said.
"They could get here on the Saturday and that would give them a week to prepare for the game in London or Manchester or whatever. They play the game and shoot back, so if they play the following Sunday that would give them eight days to get back to Australia. It will only be once a year for every [Australian or New Zealand] team."
Koukash has come from humble beginnings. Born in Palestine, as an eight-year-old he had to walk with his family for three days without food after the family farm was bombed. He didn't own a pair of shoes until he was 12. Now, he is worth an estimated $3 billion.
Asked if he would personally organise and bankroll the bold venture, the racing magnate said: "Yes, I definitely will.
"I have the support of one international airline that would be prepared to sponsor the whole thing.
"It's fine to take another team to Brisbane or New Zealand, but this would be a bigger [opportunity], the benefits are there for both competitions.
"When you want to grow, you can't always grow within your existing products, you have to introduce something new.
"Some people might be worried about taking the shine away from their competition but this is a genuine way to grow rugby league internationally."
AN ENGLISH TEAM IN THE NRL: HOW IT WOULD WORK
- If granted a licence, it would compete against existing NRL teams.
- The English side would comprise players born and bred in Britain and would comply with the NRL's salary cap restraints.
- It would play all its away games in a block during a three-month stint in Australia.
- NRL teams travelling to Britain would be given a bye to counteract travel fatigue and aid recovery.
- Some fixtures could be played in locations such as Dubai or Las Vegas to make rugby league grow internationally.