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As someone that’s been fortunate enough to build a career out of rugby league, it’s both remarkable and humbling to know that 100,000-plus people will flock to Melbourne’s sports precinct tonight, where two great battles hopefully lie in wait.

At the MCG, the AFL finals get underway a week earlier than the NRL’s, with two teams that I have great admiration for – Hawthorn and Geelong – ready to fight it out yet again. These two teams, along with Sydney, have set the benchmark for performance in their game and will be rewarded with almost 100,000 attending there alone. Given their history it’s likely to be another classic.

Million Dollar Match: 5 Sept, AAMI Park. Be there for your chance “Kick to Cure” and win $1million. Buy tickets here.

Across the road at AAMI Park, the traffic controllers and public transport workers will have more of their work cut out for them, with another 20,000 expected for our final game of the season.

Storm v Broncos has an equally fierce rivalry that has developed over the years.

And while the “Battle” tag has been replaced by the “Million Dollar Match” – one lucky fan will kick for a cool million bucks at halftime – the heat will no doubt remain as both sides tussle it out in order to secure a finals berth.

Hopefully the high stakes will ensure those in attendance enjoy the experience, including NRL CEO Dave Smith, who I’m informed will be in town for the event.

I’m sure Dave will enjoy the atmosphere that our passionate members and fans create, and will see how important rugby league, and in particular, Melbourne Storm is to our loyal members and supporters.

In my early days at Storm, having joined the club from Brisbane back in 2003, an average of around 8,000 fans attended our games at the old Olympic Park.

We coached and the players trained out of what was effectively an old tin shed. At the beginning of my time in Melbourne I even coached from within the corporate facilities. And, while I’m sure it was entertaining for our guests, it was far from ideal.

Today, after much toiling and plenty of hard work, we’ve almost doubled that figure to around 15,000 – with a slightly higher membership base, on the back of recent successes and an incredible purpose-built stadium.

There’s even a dedicated room for the coach. You can see much progress has been made. But maybe it’s only the start? Maybe there’s more that, as a game, we can achieve to grow our product further?

For rugby league, Victoria presents enormous opportunity for rugby league to grow. It’s arguably the NRL’s most important market given the growth potential for both fans and participants.

The decision by the NRL to bring State of Origin to Melbourne next year was a brave one as well as being the right one. Test Matches will also be coming.

They are both marquee fixtures and will play an important role in growing the game.

The game as a collective should now turn to the grassroots – both social and growing the pool of potential NRL players.

Rugby league’s not looking to take over from the AFL in Victoria. That’s not what it’s about.

It’s about delivering a quality rugby league experience for the adults and kids that play our game in this state. Much like the AFL has done in the northern markets – investing in playing fields, change rooms, lights, for example.

And, given the most recent broadcast deal, for the first time this is a genuine possibility.

Pleasingly, there seems to be an appetite for our game, given the Victorian Rugby League registered a 17% growth in participation this year, in addition to 50,000-plus school experiences.

That’s a growth rate of almost 400% since 2006.

The NRL’s strategic partnership with touch football may create even more opportunities.

The vision for the game in Victoria and its importance, however, must be shared across all levels.

Recently, the club was notified that our junior sides competing in the Under-16’s and Under-18’s NSW state competitions, were no longer welcome to play there as we had shifted one of our feeder sides to Queensland.

While I could think of more choice words, let’s just go with disappointing, for now.

As a former NSW coach it’s even more so – especially with these kids now likely to be eligible for Queensland instead of the Blues if they ever go on to play Origin.

Hopefully it’s a decision that can be reversed because we all share a common goal for the game as a whole. 

This article was originally published in The Australian.

Acknowledgement of Country

Melbourne Storm respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.