Rugby League: Long-awaited merger agreed in Australia

After three years of division and court battles in Australia the game has finally come together again. The new National Rugby League, split 50-50 between the rival camps, has been formed but it will mean the end for some clubs.

Six months of negotiations between the Australian Rugby League and the breakaway Super League came to fruition in Sydney yesterday to end a three-year dispute estimated to have cost pounds 320m.

The two leagues will come together to form the National Rugby League, which will have a 20-team competition for 1998. Four teams will be disappear in 1999 and another two the following year.

Financial incentives are to be offered to encourage team mergers and the deal will probably force the closure and merger of inner-city clubs, especially in Sydney as the new organisation wants between six and eight sides in the city by 2000. At present there are eight ARL and three Super League and the ARL's North Sydney has already made a positive move by deciding to move 50 miles north to Gosford for 1999.

With the game reunited, Great Britain will face a full Australian national side for the first time since 1994. The 1998 World Cup, due to be held in Australasia in the autumn, looks set to be put off until 1999, but Britain are likely to play Australia and New Zealand in a tri-series competition in the summer.

The breakthrough means that Leeds will be able to fill their vacant position of head coach, because Graham Murray's club Hunter Mariners, as well as Perth, will disappear as part of the compromise negotiated by Neil Whittaker, the ARL chief executive, and Ian Frykberg, the director of sport for News Limited, the Super League's paymasters.

The remaining eight Super League clubs will join with the 11 ARL outfits and the newly formed Melbourne club to form the National Rugby League.

"Had we not ended this war we believe we could have always produced the best rugby league competition in Australia," Whittaker said.

"But we would have had to see the game continue to suffer enormous and perhaps irreparable damage. We could not gamble the future of the game in such a way."

John McDonald of the ARL said: "Rather than argue the rights and wrongs of the past, we have put together an exciting partnership to take us into the future. Neither side has control over the other and both will be in a position where they will have to look to the good of the game."

Lachlan Murdoch, the News Limited chairman, said: "What we have done today is ensure the survival and prosperity of rugby league. This is the best outcome for all parties - clubs, fans, players the ARL and Super League."

The Rugby Football League chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, said: "This is tremendous news and is exactly what the game worldwide has been waiting to hear.

"It promises to unlock the potential we all know the game has both at home and overseas."

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