Cleary warns off rushing through New Zealand expansion

Scott Bailey |

Penrith, and ex-Warriors, coach Ivan Cleary wants the NRL to cool their plans of expanding into NZ.
Penrith, and ex-Warriors, coach Ivan Cleary wants the NRL to cool their plans of expanding into NZ.

Ivan Cleary has warned the NRL against rushing expansion into New Zealand, fearing now is not the time to flood the market and dilute the Warriors’ presence.

The NRL have started the process towards a 20-team competition, with expressions of interest for new franchises to officially be received in the next month.

Perth and Papua New Guinea are the favourites to earn the 18th and 19th franchises respectively, with a second Kiwi side likely to be the 20th.

The NRL’s preferred timeline will likely be confirmed in September, but it is expected new teams will enter in 2027, 2028 and early in the next decade.

It is the New Zealand bid that is likely to be the most contested, with multiple parties vying to enter in different locations in the country.

There are at least three bid teams working to put together a side on the south island, with former NRL CEO David Moffett behind one and ex-Warriors coach Frank Endacott another.

Moffett has spoken publicly about being ready to enter his proposed South Island Kea side from as early as 2026.

Cleary himself is well aware of the dynamics of rugby league in New Zealand, having spent most of the 2000s there as a player or coach.

Ivan Cleary.
Ivan Cleary is tackled during his playing days in Warriors colours. (Colin Whelan/AAP PHOTOS)

And while the Warriors are the best placed they have ever been, with 14 straight sell-outs at home, Cleary believes expansion in the country should not come too fast.

“I would prefer we keep progressing with the Warriors,” he said.

“They are doing really well in that space over in New Zealand. They’re bridging the gap with rugby.

“I first stepped foot on New Zealand soil 25 years ago, and it was like (rugby league was a) little brother. It was a huge gap.

“The Warriors have been selling out their games, pre-season games all over the country. I would be a little careful to not flood that market.

“I haven’t done the numbers, but that’s the way I would be leaning.”

Warriors fans.
Warriors fans get behind their team during a recent NRL match. (Jason O’BRIEN/AAP PHOTOS)

Cleary’s comments come after Warriors coach Andrew Webster echoed a similar sentiment a fortnight ago.

“I really do hope that we keep one team in New Zealand for a lot longer, just keep making this product even better,” Webster said.

“There’s certainly no complacency from us as a club, as players, or staff or anyone in the club that we’ve hit where we want to hit.

“I’d like us to nail that first before we did (expand).”

Meanwhile, the leaders of Perth’s bid team met with North Sydney bosses on Thursday, after also sitting down with Newtown counterparts on Wednesday.

Perth officials will likely need to decide in the next month if they are to partner with either of the two defunct clubs in their bid to be the 18th team, or go it as a stand-alone entity in their submission.