Where did all the Australian representative rugby go?
Many bemoan that the Australian “provincial” teams competing in the Super 14 (soon to be Super 15) are often not from the state they play for. Players now roam the country, looking for the best opportunities, playing wise and money wise.
Until this year most Reds fans bemoaned that many of their best players were to be found outside their borders. Similarly, some states such as NSW wonder why the team has to recruit players such a Drew Mitchell, Sosene Anesi or Henrik Van Roodt, when home grown players presumably miss out.
This caused me to think of rugby league’s State of Origin – its showcase and crown jewel which many New Zealand and English players have expressed a desire to play if they could. Origin is really league’s Australian provincial level competition.
That competition of course grew out of the intense NSW-Queensland rivalry of the late 1970s, when the then NSWRL would regularly “steal” players southward with their bigger money, and then use those players to beat Queensland in the state games.
Since State of Origin started (emulating as I understand the AFL version), who a player fronts up for is determined by where they played junior league first, not where they play or live now. Indeed this has led to English rugby league reviving their inter county games, and New Zealand looking to start a similar competition from 2010 under the tag “Kiwi Roots” (I kid you not), being basically Auckland vs the Rest of NZ.
Up until 1996 provincial sides were essentially picked in the same way as league in the late 1970s, you played for where you lived and worked (because you were amateur, and had a real job!). Since then, of course, professionalism has meant that any player can play for any team in Australia that he contracts for.
In the case of Scott Fava, he was the first player to play for all 4 Super 14 teams. A long way from the days when a player would usually envision only ever playing for one state team.
Professionalism has essentially killed representative rugby at the state/provincial level, in more ways than one. “State” sides now only really play in the Super 14 competition. The most recent competition to feature these sides was the short lived Australian Provincial Championship (APC) in 2006, which was then replaced by the short lived Australian Rugby Championship.
At the amateur level the Australian Rugby Shield (ARS) was killed off in recent years due to cost cutting by the ARU. Now, the only time you are likely you see Super 14/15 or state teams playing outside the Super 14/15 will be against touring international sides, including the Lions.
With the ending of the Australia A program, also for cost cutting reasons at the same time as the ARS was culled, perhaps it is time to bring back representative rugby in some form. Simply trotting out the Super 14/15 sides later in the season, without their Wallabies (who would be competing in the Tri-Nations or November tour) like the APC is unlikely to get rugby fans excited, in simply delivering “more of the same” as Super 14 (especially with the increased local derbies in Super 15).
As such, how about the re-introduction of at least a one off true representative fixture between at least NSW and Queensland every season?
This could be played after the Super 14/15, and thus provide provincial level players, and fringe Wallabies (or returning injured players) with something more intense than club rugby.
If the timing was right, it could even be fitted in between Tri-Nations games and feature Wallabies (although I can’t see Robbie Deans or the ARU interrupting their preparations, or risking injuries).
When you think of some of the players that would have played in a truly representative state squad for either NSW or Queensland, it throws up some mouth watering possibilities. George Smith pulling on the sky blue, Drew Mitchell pulling on the maroon, sorry red (I hear some Reds fans screaming NSW can have him, while some Tahs fans yell the Reds can have him back). Latham for NSW, Hewat for Queensland, etc.
And before ACT and other state fans start screaming, I’ll let commercial reality and practicality step in. Firstly, the teams have to be competitive. Until ACT, WA, Victoria, etc can field a full 22 players able to play at the same level (i.e. professional), they aren’t likely to be competitive, or provide enough of a spectacle to get in the revenue to pay for the spectacle.
Secondly, if they aren’t competitive no one will watch. At the end of the day NSW and Queensland are the “heartland” of rugby, and provide an age old rivalry. Just look at league’s Origin for proof – 30 years and going strong.
So, assuming we can get RUPA and the players to cut a deal on the extra coin needed for them to play (flashbacks to the imbroglio about the Possibles v Probables game last year), would anyone else love to see at least one true provincial representative game some time soon in Australian rugby?
Although I’m sure someone would anyway, anyone want to suggest some starting sides …. and coaches?