One of my most despised expressions is – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. It simply implies a total lack of vision and initiative to make progress. Just because something ain’t broke, doesn’t mean we can’t make it better. I believe that State of Origin, despite its phenomenal success culminating in the 100th game being played this Wednesday at Suncorp Stadium, can be further improved. I believe there are some aspects to Origin scheduling and player selection that can be further enhanced and, in the process, ensure the game maintains its status as the premier sporting event in the country for the next 100 games.
The Wednesday night scheduling has had its fair share of criticism over the years. The basis for this criticism has centered on the fact that Origin has operated to the detriment of the NRL competition. For instance, the Bulldogs take on the Roosters this week with both teams missing key players. The Bulldogs, in particular, are missing their halves. Under normal circumstances, this would be a blockbuster game between the first and second favourites in the betting markets. A crowd of 30,000+ would be guaranteed. Instead, we have a game that is stripped of its interest and competitiveness due to the missing representative players. Teams like Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland usually suffer this time of the year, more so than most teams. Teams playing Melbourne minus their “big four”, for instance, have a distinct advantage. At the end of the season, two competition points could be the difference between making the top eight or even top four. How can the competition maintain its fairness when some teams are disadvantaged either through missing players or having their key players backing up a few days after the most brutal games of the season?
What’s the solution? I am an advocate for stand-alone Origin games run over three consecutive Saturdays. I know Craig Bellamy, understandably, suggested a similar format last year. The benefits of scheduling the Origin game over three consecutive Saturdays are more far reaching than just making the competition fairer. It would also allow all players not involved in Origin to either recover from injuries and/or take a mid-season break to revitalise and rejuvenate. Players already complain about being over-burdened. This would be an ideal opportunity for a well-earned rest and the coaching staff would have more time to re-strategise.
Having games played on Saturday would also be more child-friendly. As it is, parents are reluctant to take their children to mid-week games due to fact that most families wouldn’t get home before 11pm on a school night. I don’t think tv ratings would dwindle if the game was played on a Saturday night. In fact, it may be boosted given the commercial tv programs on Saturday night are not exactly compelling viewing.
Some will argue that, having only one game a week for three weeks, would open the door for AFL and Rugby Union. I disagree. If anything, there would be such an intense focus on the Origin series that the public sporting appetite would be more than satisfied. Furthermore, the Wallabies vs British and Irish Lions series was run over three consecutive Saturdays last year and that series proved a resounding success both in tv ratings and crowd attendance. I believe that series was conducted whilst the Super 15s was placed on hold.
At the risk of being howled down in a blaze of fury, I am, once again, going to suggest that non Australian players should participate in State of Origin. I have been advocating this concept for years and, finally, I have an ally in Phil Gould who wrote a piece about this very topic several weeks ago. I believe players like Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Burgess, James Graham, Sam Kasiano and Keiran Foran should be involved in Origin. Why? Why change something that has worked for 34 years? Because, we can make it better. Even more fascinating, more intriguing, more spectacular. The Origin concept can evolve into a true “best of best” concept yet still maintain the intense rivalry and interstate hatred.
Think about it. The Origin concept was predicated on the basis of the “State v State, Mate v Mate” philosophy. That very concept can still be preserved if we introduce “non Australian” players like Sonny Bill Williams, providing the selection criteria is clear and equitable. For example, NZ players can only represent in Origin if they played their junior rugby league in Australia, as was the case with Keiran Foran and Sonny Bill Williams. In fact, both players represented NSW in the Under 17s. English players, given the obvious distance obstacle, can play Origin providing they have played at least 3 consecutive years in the NRL in the state of their choice. Melbourne Storm and NZ Warriors can be considered Queensland defaults.
Having international players participating in origin would also eliminate the embarrassing James Tamou situation by allowing NZ and English players to be able to return to their National team after Origin is complete. This serves to strengthen and maintain international competitiveness. So, Sonny Bill would be able to go back and play for NZ. Likewise, Sam Burgess would be able to return to England. As it is, we’ve had ridiculous inconsistencies in the past when players like Adrian Lam played for Queensland then represented Papua New Guinea. Tonie Carroll returned to NZ. This would also eliminate the farcical situation where Karmichael Hunt was ridiculed by his New Zealand compatriots for turning his back on his country of origin. More recently, Anthony Milford has represented Samoa yet is poised to represent Queensland.
The elite international players would also pocket extra payments that the salary cap denies them, thereby keeping players like Sonny Bill and Sam Burgess in our game. Most elite athletes will tell you they crave the big stage more so than the money. That’s why Sonny and Sam have signed with Rugby… to play in the big World Cup stage.
Does the NRL have the ticker to fix something that ain’t broke? I believe they should consider the changes sooner rather than later.