I love Origin as much as the next red-blooded New South Welshman or Queenslander. It is the pinnacle of the sport. Fast paced, exciting, brutal, tribal… it ticks just about every box and it is never a surprise to me to see the three games consistently among the biggest television events of the year. For me Origin as a kid meant bringing out the doona and pillow off my bed and getting to stay up late to watch, usually after a take-away meal of pizza or fish and chips. They were easily the greatest nights of the year short of Christmas or a birthday. In the early years I remember the Queensland dominance of the late 80s and my Dad screaming at the referee and players, then it turned and in my impressionable youth I witnessed the Blues early 90s teams get the job done more often than not with my favourite player Rod Wishart growing another leg and kicking goals from everywhere. The end of the decade continued a lot of Blues success and by the time I was writing and studying to be a journalist the 2000 Blues were apparently destroying Origin football by being so awesome. The same sentiment wafted through the air in 2006 where New South Wales were just a terrible Brett Hodgson pass from winning four series in a row. Instead the Maroons prevailed and haven’t lost since… but I digress.
My only problem with State of Origin (other than Queensland dominance) is the increasing effect it is having on the NRL competition. It is becoming more and more obvious the season proper is being destroyed by Origin as the best players get physically and mentally prepared for the three games. I have always loved the Wednesday night Origin but just look at the rubbish quality of football we get not just the weeks before Origin with players out, but the week after as they back up (or don’t) and the continuing weeks ahead as they try to get over bumps, bruises and disappointment should they lose. It is seriously lacking of skill and intensity and ends up being just ‘filler’ as we wait for the finals, which because of the above arguably don’t have the best teams in the right slots on the ladder anyway. Last year the Melbourne Storm lost five in a row at the back end of Origin, a $100,000 slump as they lost the minor premiership.
And then half the teams (and fans) are waiting for next year.
As fans are we really happy shelling out our hard earned to watch a couple of half strength teams go around at this time of year? The NRL is already predictable enough these days with half the teams trying to play the exact same style even though they can’t do it anywhere near as good as the best sides. Now we have to watch less skilled players try to fit into an already often-boring ‘system’. Then there are of course injuries or the threat thereof. Paul Gallen already missed time with Cronulla to be right for Origin… do Sharks fans think this is right? Now he’s going to miss at least the next two games also. Jarryd Hayne did his hammy backing up… now it might have happened anyway but whose to say the demands of a couple of games in quick succession aren’t to blame? Parramatta are struggling enough without having to play sans their best player. Cameron Smith is out of the Storm this weekend, Chris McQueen didn’t play for the Bunnies, James Maloney is gone from the Roosters, Trent Merrin is suspended for being a git (okay that’s a different story)… but that’s just some of the Origin fallout.
The rubbish half weekends with weakened players also gives a free kick to the other sports, be it union or AFL or tiddlywinks, all of which could potentially be better contests then what is thrown up.
As I stated above it’s not like everything goes back to normal at fulltime of Game III. There are weeks of hangover football and it’s not until the finals are upon us that players really get back ‘up’. With momentum being such a critical factor in the finals it can be too little too late.
So what is the solution? There is no perfect answer. Plenty of ideas have been thrown up. The most common is the stand-alone weekend Origins with the NRL on a bye or perhaps the same system but with Monday Night Origin to give more recovery time.
But both of these options still rob us of the players in the lead up to an Origin and still bring in recovery and backing up issues.
Perhaps it is time to revolutionise the situation, the competition, and reinvigorate international football at the same time. Given right now we have Kiwi’s playing Origin and young islanders pledging allegiance to states because it is the pinnacle of the sport we need to take a stand. We need to be the country to take a hit in order to lift the game to a higher level globally. As rugby union hits the Olympics, albeit as sevens, countries like the USA are putting money and infrastructure into the game. Will future generations a long time down the track have the patience for a non-global sport? Before you say everything will be fine it wasn’t that long ago Test cricket was a supreme sport. Now, aside from the Ashes, it is waning and we’ve had 20/20 come along and take out the 50 over game as people have less time to invest.
More importantly will the best athletes strive to be rugby league players in Australia on ‘x’ amount of dollars when a global rugby competition, or whatever sport it might be on a bigger stage is paying five times as much? To use a cricket analogy again the demise of the West Indies in cricket can be attributed to the new generations being exposed to American sports and the dollars that come from them.
How long before the players in the NRL actually take some of the power? The absolute last thing I would want to see is players holding the game ransom but you only have to look at the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL in the USA to see a powerful players union who holds out from playing ultimately gets something close to what they want. The NFL players now have strict limits on how many practices they can do in full contact pads or at all in a certain space of time. The trick to avoiding these scenarios is to address concerns and amount of games and the strain of the rep season is always high on the complaints list.
So how can changing Origin help all of this? I am aware there are so many complexities to making big changes but I am going to dream up a scenario anyway. My solution is completely out of the box, it is possibly improbable, but the reality is something big has to be done.
- Change the season to 15 games, play each other once, alternate home and away each year. Start with an eight-week run.
- Through the middle eight weeks of the year change things up.
- Make State of Origin three stand-alone weekend games with other rep games across the weekend, with a weekend off between. Origin can be Sunday night with Friday and Saturday reserved for under-age fixtures plus, ideally, Test Matches for other nations. Lets see more Samoa, Tonga, PNG, Cook Islands, Fiji etc. Let’s see the Kiwi’s with an Origin series of their own, north v south islands. It would be a dream if England also scheduled their Exiles matches (or Tests) in these weekends and guys like Sam Burgess actually went and played.
- Have a fourth weekend at the end of the series for a Test Match featuring Australia, bringing back the notion that Origin is a precursor to make the national side.
- Bring in a knockout Challenge Cup situation similar to the UK with BIG sponsors and prize money to ensure teams take it seriously and set it up to run in the off weekends from Origin. I am aware this means some players will still perhaps be missing or obligated to back up but it is much less given teams are knocked out. In order to negate teams who lose in the opening week of the Challenge Cup not playing again for too long, create a continuation of play by scaling prize money from first to 16th and have loser brackets. In other words on the same weekend the final of this competition is being played there are also matches to rank everyone’s finish, right down to last place. In this situation clubs could easily decide to play or rest their stars, perhaps blood new comers or youngsters they’re not sure of, but they would be giving up chances at more money and players don’t want to be inactive too long. It would be great if a lot of these games were taken to country areas and teams spent the week in towns lifting the games profile with coaching clinics and fundraisers etc. It’s just a shame rugby league doesn’t have a draft as you could incentivise with draft picks!
At the end of this eight-week period the final seven rounds of the competition can recommence, giving a final flourish to the finish before the finals.
So am I off my rocker? Do you have a better solution? Please have fun tearing this apart, or supporting it, but think hard about what can help everyone. Join the debate on facebook or twitter and lets see if we can’t find the best solution.