When State of Origin first kicked off, it was seen by many as a gimmick. Bob Fulton once called it “the greatest non-event of the century”. 40 years later it is the highest rating event on Australian television, it delivers millions in revenue to the game and is seen as the pinnacle of the sport.
The men have had the good fortune of leading the way. They were able to do away with the old interstate residency rules that were instituted in 1908 and take part in what has become the showpiece event.
But for the women who ply their trade in the greatest game of all, they had to wait until 2018 to finally play in an official Origin match.
A history of women’s Origin
While the first official women’s Origin took place at North Sydney Oval in 2018, the women’s interstate challenge began in 1999 and it was dominated by Queensland.
It was played under the same Origin criteria as the men with Queensland born players representing their state of birth. But if you thought the men’s dominance from 2006-2017 was impressive, Queensland’s women went undefeated from 1999 to 2015.
For 17 years Queensland dominated the format.
However, if you didn’t follow the women’s game closely, there was little chance of you catching the score or even knowing where the game was being played.
Matches were spread out across Queensland and NSW. Some played as curtain raisers to the men’s State of Origin in front of perhaps a handful of early-arriving spectators and the players’ families, other times they were at suburban grounds.
While the women took it seriously, it wasn’t treated like an Origin game by the game itself. Matches would be one-offs, with occasionally the two games played in a year.
In 2016 NSW finally broke their drought with an 8-4 win, followed by a 22-6 victory in 2017.
2018 signalled the arrival of the official Origin name to women’s interstate rugby league, and for Queensland captain and veteran Ali Brigginshaw, it was recognition of all the hard work the players had put into their performances over previous campaigns..
“In the women’s space, for those girls who have played those interstate games before us we thought, the pressure is on us because we have to go out and show Australia what we’re made of and why we should be on television for one and why it should be called a State of Origin.
“I think in that first game it really helped set expectations. I’ve played in those interstate games but I’ve played in the first Origin. So for those girls that I played with back in those days it was a whole lot of pressure knowing we’ve got to do this right because you probably only get that one chance at having it called Origin to keep going if you go out and it’s not that great a picture for everyone to see,” Brigginshaw said.
For Blues centre Corban McGregor, while her teammates had always called the interstate matches “Origin” having it become official took the game to another level.
“ It was always tough. We always called it Origin, we never called it the interstate challenge, that’s the only thing that changes.
“I think since it’s been rebranded to Origin and we’ve had stand alone games it’s just taken it to a whole other level. I think the girls love that. We’re not the pre-game or the curtain raiser. Everyone’s there to watch us and I think it’s shown that people really want to see it because we’ve had really good success with numbers and TV ratings and that’s just a testament to the girls,” McGregor said.
With the Origin moniker came the hallmarks of State of Origin. An official Origin shield was up for grabs and the game was a standalone clash held at North Sydney Oval with the women the main event that all 6,824 fans were there to see. It also got top billing on Channel Nine’s HD broadcast in prime time.
“So having them as stand alones in stadiums where our fans can come to. With the promotion of the game where we’re playing in front of a bigger ground. It comes with higher expectations to play well, more pressure on the girls when it comes to that but it’s also about spreading our game,” Brigginshaw said.
“From both sides we always try and go out and put on the best performance for the future. For the game to keep growing we need to play well so that’s why we hold such high expectations for that game.”
Mate vs Mate
While women’s Origin may have come about in the post-punching era meaning it’s unlikely we’ll see their equivalent of Arthur Beetson belting club teammates Steven Edge and Michael Cronin, the rivalry between club teammates at Origin level is still there.
Women don’t just play a handful of NRLW games each year, they also participate in state-based club rugby league meaning they often mix with a wide range of players across the year, playing alongside Origin and Test opponents.
McGregor though says she enjoys playing against many of her club teammates at State and Test level.
“I’m playing for the Sydney Roosters in the NRLW at the moment and I’m playing alongside Zahara (Roosters five-eighth Zahara Temara) and she’s very likely to be playing for the Maroons in a couple of weeks time and also when we’re playing in our state competitions, there are a lot of Kiwi girls that I play with and they’re some of my best friends.
“We’re in a team for half the year and then when we come against each other for Test footy we’re on opposite sides of the field so that’s the unique thing about our game. But I love it and I know the girls like the challenge as well.”
Brigginshaw says she counts many of her NSW opponents as some of her closest friends, but there is no soft spot for them come Origin.
“There’s definitely a bit of a banter and all it’s a bit of fun but when we go out to play, we’re friends off the field but on the field it’s all competition. Most of my best mates play for NSW so it’s a little different for me playing against my best mates but they know we’re competitive on the field but when we leave the field, just like the men we’re mostly friends.”
Brigginshaw adds that the familiarity they have with many of their state rivals means Origin goes up several levels in intensity and tactics.
“I actually feel like Origin’s the hardest game you’ll play and I’ve said that to a few girls, and I just don’t if it’s whether you’re playing against people who know you essentially and know how you play so you’ve really got to up your game. They might shut down a certain player or a certain play because they know how you play so it’s all about adjusting to those pressures I guess,” she said.
The 1990s signalled the beginning of the professional era for the men, but for the women, they are very much in the same situation their male counterparts were before the Super League war.
They hold full time jobs and balance their employment with their training.
However, Brigginshaw says recent improvements in the professionalism of their club and state training means her and her teammates can now play at a much higher and more complex level than they did only a few years ago.
“You’ve got fitness programs, the majority of people coming into the NRLW now are on similar fitness plans and when they come into those games the standard and the fitness is a bit higher. When it first started I’m sure they didn’t have elite strength and conditioning coaches that were watching and assessing everyone’s performances. During the week at training we only run so many kilometres, I’m sure they didn’t have tracking when they first started.
“I think it’s brought that elite professionalism to the game but it’s also changed the way we play because we’re fitter, we can run more plays, we can get more line speed in defence.
“It’s taking nothing away from what the game was, but it used to be a bit of bash up footy like it was in the men’s game. Take a big carry, and get the offload. But now we like to play a bit more structure and I think that comes down to the strength and conditioning we get put into and the professionalism of the environment of what it is today,” she said.
McGregor agrees, saying with the raise in profile, the women have had to deal with some added celebrity as well as media commitments but in turn it gives them the opportunity to inspire the next generation.
“The last few years have been crazy. The game is becoming more on the big stage and people are wanting to see more of it on telly and people are going to stadiums to watch us. With that comes more responsibility and a lot of the marquee girls have to commit to more media commitments, doing school visits and stuff like that.
“It’s exciting for us because we haven’t had a whole lot of that until the last few years when our programs have got a little bit bigger and it’s a pleasure because we get to inspire the young girls coming through and give them some inspiration to strive towards something and that’s pretty much my reason that I play; To enjoy it while I’m here but also to push boundaries so that girls can do it professionally one day,” she said.
Brigginshaw reveals that were it not for COVID-19, we may have ended up with more than the one women’s match this year.
“I actually thought there might have been more games this year but obviously with COVID happening we’re lucky to be having a game with everything that’s going on. But I definitely see it going to a three game series.”
She adds that a key consideration for extending the series has to be the players’ employment and how they can manage time off from work to go into camp for weeks at a time.
“I think it’s hard also, you’ve got to remember the girls have full time jobs, so it’s not as easy as taking that time off. It might be three weeks off or six weeks off like the men do so that’s something you’ve got to take into consideration as well. Because most full time jobs only give you four weeks of holidays.
“If they can try and work it to knock the games over as quickly as they can. So whether it’s week after week or just having two. How they decide the winner, I’m not sure if it was an even series. We’ve had the conversation about what it looks like and what our step forward is next.”
McGregor echoes those sentiments saying jumping to three games now might be overloading the players, however as they continue to improve and continue to put on exciting contests, then there’s no reason they can’t eventually enjoy a three match series with 80 minute games.
“The one match is still awesome and it’s a work in progress. Just like the NRLW we don’t want to push things too soon and I think at the moment, the women’s game, a lot of the women are playing in so many different teams throughout the year.
“We’re actually playing a lot of footy each year because there are so many different competitions going on. I think three games would be a little bit of an overload for us but as we work towards a full time, professional structure for the women, hopefully the NRLW growing and just focussing on the one competition then that’s when the three Origin matches should come into play in my opinion.
“I hope that it’s just really good footy that’s pushing towards equality with the men. We’re still only on the one match, I hope in 40 years time we have the three matches and the game just keeps evolving. We’ve had a really good base for women’s rugby league and even in my short amount of time playing the game I’ve seen how far the game’s come,” she said.
Welcome home, Queenslander
The first two Origin matches have both been played in NSW at North Sydney Oval. The 2019 clash was the most watched women’s rugby league clash in history and saw a crowd of 10,515 pack out the historic ground.
A key part of Origin though was missing. The famous “Queenslander” chant made famous by Billy Moore has barely been heard, although that should change this year with the match making the trek north and being staged at Sunshine Coast Stadium. The same ground the Melbourne Storm have called home for much of the 2020 NRL season.
Brigginshaw says the home game will be welcomed by the Queensland team.
“That’s been one of the biggest things, having it here because the crowd support that NSW gets – the crowd’s great, we love the crowd – but it’d be nice to see some Maroon in the crowd, cheering for us rather than big Blues chants when we need to score a try and all you can hear is Blues fans when you’re going out.
“And to play in front of your family, it’s not always easy to bring partners or kids down to Sydney, especially where it is and the time of year that it is, so we’re really looking forward to having all our family there, having our Queensland supporters coming to see the game.”
Despite McGregor’s Blues enjoying home crowd support for the past two years, she says playing away will be welcomed by NSW.
“I think we’ve been really lucky to have the first few State of Origins in NSW. They definitely deserve a home game and I think, hopefully I’m there, but can’t complain with the Sunshine Coast for a couple of weeks. That’ll be nice.
“Especially the Broncos girls for the NRLW season. They’ve been flying in and out each week for the matches. They definitely deserve some down time to settle down in their own states and I think it’s been on the NSW’s girls minds and we’re ready to go over there and hopefully beat them on their home soil.”
Brigginshaw adds that it’s up to the players to continue the growth of the women’s game and that an Origin match in Queensland is yet another objective about to be ticked off the list.
“That’s how women’s sport kind of comes about, you keep performing, keep pushing barriers to get it more exposure and that was something that was in that first game of pulling on that jersey as a State of Origin.
“Playing a game in Queensland, that’s another barrier we’ve ticked off so we do try and up it each year. We do come together, the elite group of women and just have those conversations about what it looks like and what we’d like to see. Each year it’s different and hopefully we can get to three games.”
As women’s Origin continues to grow, McGregor says she hopes to inspire the next generation of girls and that perhaps they’ll be picking up the footy as youngsters trying to emulate their heroes.
“Hopefully young girls are throwing the footy around from the age of four or five years old, not 20 years old like I was. I hope the footy continues to evolve and the quality gets better and everything moves towards a professional opportunity for young girls growing up.”
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