State of Origin. The showpiece of Australian rugby league. This year sees it celebrate 40 years since the inaugural match in 1980.
It’s come a long way since that one off match. There have been plenty of changes to its eligibility rules, when it’s been played and the stadiums that have hosted it.
From California to the MCG, State of Origin has showcased itself in some of the biggest markets on the planet.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the usual mid-season blockbusters have been pushed to November, well after most club sides have gone on holidays.
The move this season was inevitable. The NRL didn’t want to break up an already disrupted season with three Origin matches and it also didn’t want to push the Grand Final too late in the year when there could be scheduling clashes with Cricket Australia.
Recently though, Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’Landys has tabled the idea of leaving Origin at the end of the season. He highlights the potential for even larger audiences on television, allowing them to own a traditional dead spot for Australian sport.
With the NRL and AFL seasons traditionally concluding at the start of October and the Test summer of cricket generally not beginning until middle-late November, there is generally six weeks of clear air, filled by the Melbourne Cup, domestic cricket and more recently the start of the NFL season as well as the EPL.
However, none of those events typically captures large audiences (apart from the Melbourne Cup, but that’s only one day) and the NRL could effectively then own November.
Yet, there are plenty of arguments against this potential move.
International rugby league
For rugby league to grow, it needs more than the NRL and English Super League to be broadcast overseas or exhibition matches played in different countries.
It needs international tours from the likes of Australia and New Zealand, post-season tournaments and a strong world cup.
In recent years Pacific Tests have been held mid-season, often aligning with the traditional ANZAC Day clash. However, these games are sometimes impacted by NRL coaches not wanting to release their players for matches.
End of season should be used for nations like Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea to play competitive matches against the likes of Australia and New Zealand. It’s rare that outside a world cup, tier two and three sides and get to play against tier one sides.
The Kangaroos, under Mal Meninga, have also expressed a desire to tour Europe at the end of the year and this would have occurred in 2020 had the pandemic not prevented international travel.
Moving Origin to the end of the year effectively squashes these possibilities as Australia would not be able to play Test matches.
V’Landys has also hinted at relaxing the eligibility requirements so that players could represent both their country and New South Wales or Queensland.
That would be a mistake that would seriously impact the legitimacy of State of Origin. While there have been plenty of players in the past who have represented a country other than Australia and played Origin, the eligibility rules were recently tightened to try and prevent that.
For many players, the end of the season is an opportunity to get surgery on injuries they’ve carried throughout the year and have enough time to recover for their club side’s pre-season.
Playing Origin after the season means there will be elite players in the game forced to either delay surgery further, thereby impacting their club sides, or get surgery and be ruled out of Origin altogether.
Matt Scott famously opted out of representing Australia in order to undergo off-season neck surgery.
Players could opt to play injured, many do throughout the year, but that would no doubt impact the quality of the game.
Players also need a specific amount of time away from club organised training following the completion of the season and therefore playing Origin after the season will mean those players will miss the start of their club’s pre-season.
Further to this, is the fact that playing the game following the end of the season means that the majority of players will not have much game time under their belt leading into the match.
And given Origin squads are generally all announced at once, will players in the frame be expected not to go on holidays at the end of the season? Will they be prevented from enjoying time with their family after a long season?
How does Origin then look if say 75 percent of the players haven’t kicked a ball in anger in a month leading into the first game. One of the great hallmarks of Origin is its speed and intensity. The players may be motivated post-season, but I’d question if they would retain their sharpness and physicality, especially in game one.
We’ve all seen that it takes about four to five weeks at the start of the season for players to once again get used to playing. For the vast majority of Origin players, they will likely have missed the grand final, meaning some players could not have played for two months by the time Origin rolls around.
While the international summer of cricket doesn’t begin until later in the year, domestic cricket quite often begins in September/October. In October the cricket pitches are dropped in and prepared at the SCG, MCG, Adelaide Oval and Optus Stadium.
Given the NRL’s recent desire to play at least one match per series outside NSW and QLD, it’s likely one of Adelaide, Melbourne or Perth would be required to stage an Origin match.
Would the cricket authorities willingly delay their season for what would effectively be a competing sport?
And what about when sides like England and India tour for the cricket? Those two tours make the most money for Cricket Australia and receive some of the highest TV ratings in world sport. Those series usually start in mid November so four Test matches can be squeezed in by the end of the year.
The NRL could go from not having to compete with any large event in the middle of the year, to competing with two of the largest cricketing nations every second year.
The other issue to consider is the heat. While Origin is played at night, the weather in Queensland as well as South Australia and Western Australia begins to heat up in October and is getting considerably hotter in November.
During winter, Brisbane provides a comfortable night temperature, allowing for quick ball movement and an expansive game. Sydney can be more dour if there is a heavy amount of dew around, however, as NSW showed in 2019 in Perth, a slippery ball doesn’t exactly mean fewer points.
But what if instead of a comfortable temperature, we have Origin played in high humidity? Sapping the energy from the players and turning the ball into a cake of soap due to heavy sweating? What happens to the spectacle then?
The other consideration to be made regards what the draw looks like if there is no Origin mid-season.
At the moment Origin provides the opportunity for byes and for the season to be broken up.
If there is no Origin, what happens to those breaks?
The Rugby League Players Association has only recently said the season is too long. If Origin is then tacked onto the end of the year, effectively extending it by a further month, will the players agree to it?
Or will the NRL be forced to shorten the regular season to account for the extension?
For 40 years Origin has been tinkered with, altered, rescheduled and shifted around the country. It remains one of the top rating TV shows in Australia and one of the most heavily attended events in the country.
The real question is, how will moving it to the end of the year really boost the NRL’s bottomline? Will it really attract more casual fans, or do those that care already watch it mid-season? Games are virtually always sold out or close to it so there’s not much to be gained in that regard.
Origin is currently a more attractive product than it has ever been. The contests are far more even now than they were in the previous decade, venues like Perth and Melbourne have embraced it when it has rolled into town. Ratings are always dominant and tickets sell like hot cakes.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
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