AFL rep footy finally back on the table

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It was with tempered optimism that this writer received the news that representative football is finally back on the AFL’s agenda, after 13 years in the wilderness.

Details are, of course, still very sketchy, but the league’s operations manager Adrian Anderson told The Sunday Mail in Queensland that the door is ajar for a possible return of interstate matches.

It’s the news many footy fans have been waiting for.

The fact that AFL House is now willing to discuss the notion of representative football is testament to how loud the calls for it were.

Anderson said there was clearly an ‘appetite’ for it from the AFL Players’ Association following the recent collective bargaining talks.

It is true that there is certainly a State of Origin-shaped hole in the hearts of players and supporters.

But it’s also true that there is no Origin-shaped gap in the footy calendar, and so thus the hard part begins – trying to nut out a way for it to be done properly.

This debate is hardly new territory. Just about every man and his respective dog has an idea about how it could be done, and yes, I’ll get to mine later.

But we may as well drop the idea right now if all parties involved are not going to be 100 percent committed to getting it right.

When interstate football burned out over a decade ago, it was because not everyone was on the same page.

Clubs were concerned about their star players getting injured. As a result, fans lost interest. The perceived value and, subsequently, the passion for State of Origin waned once the game went national in the 1990s.

Now in the age of the draft, where teenagers are plucked from their hometowns and flung across the country, clubs are inevitably starting to lose their local flavour.

We’re happy to accept that. In a way, it mirrors our globalised society. People and cultures are converging.

At the same time though, the importance of recognising one’s roots remains – and the opportunity to celebrate that lies in wait. We see just how well rugby league has seized that opportunity three times per year.

NRL State of Origin is a headline-stealing, ratings-dominating, stadium-packing monolith. The fact that Queensland and New South Wales can continually play in front of a full house in Melbourne is proof of that alone.

If the AFL can package its own representative games in the right way, and deliver it with the same gusto that birthed the two new expansion clubs, then the sky is the limit.

Few would mourn the loss of the NAB Cup, especially if it was dismantled and replaced with a series of practice matches.

That could make room for the first of two interstate matches, and what better way to lead into round one?

The NRL Indigenous All Stars game earlier this year was a terrific spectacle, and if February is good enough for representative rugby league, it should be good enough for the AFL.

Sure, players are not at their peak fitness, but if the match is played in the right spirit then the drawbacks can be negated, as it was in the NRL All Stars game.

Another gap could be fashioned in mid-season. If the AFLPA wants State of Origin badly enough then they’ll have to accept that elite players will be busier than usual.

And if someone goes down with an injury in a representative game? Tough luck. They can also hurt themselves at training, at the beach, at home – anywhere.

Poor Levi Greenwood fractured his foot a couple of years ago after an argument with his tracksuit pants and a staircase. You can’t tread on eggshells.

But then there’s another matter – who plays? The Big V is a certainty, but who should they lock horns with?

For fans outside of Victoria to emotionally invest in State of Origin, the disrespectful concept of a ‘Dream Team’ should be scrapped.

Bring back South Australia and WA, forget the Allies, and rotate the teams on an annual basis based on success. First up, have Victoria against SA.

Say Victoria loses the two-game series – then Western Australia takes their place the next year, and so on and so forth. Make each state earn the right to remain.

There is no doubt the discussion will continue over the coming months, behind closed doors. But please, forgive my enthusiasm – I’m just happy it’s on the table in the first place.

Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard of the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. A Port Adelaide fan by birth, he now is a sports reporter for The Cairns Post.
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