Never mind the farewell game, City-Country is already dead

Tim Gore Columnist

By , Tim Gore is a Roar Expert

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    At 4pm this Sunday one of the least anticipated matches in the history of rugby league will take place. The last ever City versus Country Origin match will be played at Glen Willow Oval in Mudgee.

    However, the biggest question hanging over this match isn’t who will win, it is why they are even bothering to play it.

    Just like a Weekend at Bernie’s sequel, the NRL is dragging the dead body around of a once proud event one more time and no one quite understands why.

    AFL coach Mick Malthouse once wrote that when a player started talking to him about retirement he would never encourage them to go around again because they were probably already half checked out. Mick’s logic is that to be effective at the top level a football player must be fully committed or they will inevitably fail.

    And so it is with rugby league fixtures. Once they have been earmarked for the scrapheap there is no point whatsoever in continuing them.

    Unlike a champion’s last game, once an event has been declared surplus to demands it loses all ability to inspire passion, interest and – as has clearly been the case this week – participation.

    That City coach Brad Fittler was unable to name a full squad by the allotted time on Monday because he couldn’t get players to agree to play on his team was an inevitable consequence of the telegraphing of the game’s demise.

    As soon as the NRL decided to kill off the event there should have been zero consideration of “one last hurrah” for the fixture.

    The event was played yearly from 1928 until 1998. After a three-year hiatus, it was brought back in 2001. That would seem to suggest that it is part of the fabric of Australian rugby league. So why is it being subjected to such an ignominious and drawn out execution?

    The answer is painfully simple: the game doesn’t really matter to anyone and it hasn’t for a very long time.

    It has been strung along well past its use by date for the benefit of Country rugby league. Though there have been two efforts to revive the concept, both were as effective as attempts to revive Bernie’s corpse.

    The first attempt at resuscitation occurred in 1987 when the selection rules were changed to recognise a player’s origin. Previously to that point any player who was playing in the then NSWRL was considered eligible to play for the City team, regardless of where they came from.

    Unsurprisingly, that led to a very long period of City dominance. Between 1963 and 1986 the Country team won just two of the 25 games.

    The institution of the Origin rules did make the results closer, however, the City side still won the next five games.

    Perhaps that was assisted by some interesting definitions of ‘City’ used when selecting some of the teams. This included selecting Queanbeyan born, bred and raised Glen Lazarus in the 1989 City side.

    However, the idea still could not capture the hearts and minds of the supporters. Their attention had already been well and truly stolen away by a much greater battle against a common and vicious foe.

    Born in 1980, by 1987 State of Origin was already a behemoth. Whereas the City/Country match may have once swelled the passion and parochialism of crowds and players, by 1987 the only Origin selections anyone really cared about in NSW were the ones made for sky blue jerseys.

    While Laurie Daley managed to drive his team to an inspiring victory in 1992, the matches were at best a side show.

    The one thing that gave them some validity was that they were still used as a selection tool for the NSW State of Origin Team.

    From 1987 until the Super League war* there is strong evidence to back up the games use in that regard:

    Year City/Country Origin players picked for NSW Blues Percentage of participants
    1987 18 85.7%
    1988 20 83.3%
    1989 18 66.66%
    1990 18 72.2%
    1991 15 62.5%
    1992 18 85.7%
    1993 19 82.6%
    1994 19 90.5%
    1996 16 94.1%
    *1995 not included due to selection exclusions based on issues other than form.

    In among all of the turmoil of the Packer versus Murdoch battle for control of rugby league, the City versus Country game disappeared for three seasons. Many of us thought it was dead. I certainly did.

    But then – just like Bernie in the Virgin Islands – up popped the corpse in 2001.

    However, unlike before, the match featured virtually no players that went on to play for NSW in that year’s State of Origin series. Only two of the 34 players from the City versus Country match were among the 25 who represented NSW that year. That was a pitiful eight per cent.

    Not only were none of the country players actually drawn from country teams anymore, the game was clearly not used for selection anymore.

    I looked on in horror as the corpse was dragged out.

    But they didn’t stop.

    It became a meaningless exhibition game whose only purpose was to give lip service to the Country rugby league and needlessly risk players to injury. Players considered certainties to play for NSW were given a free pass to skip the match.

    Due to the utter dominance of Queensland causing NSW to desperately search for options, the City versus Country match has served as limited pathway to the NSW Origin side in recent years:

    Year City/Country Origin players picked for NSW Blues Percentage of participants
    2013 8 36.3%
    2014 7 31.8%
    2015 4 20%
    2016 6 27.2%

    Of the players press-ganged into this year’s City vs Country game – assuming Paul Gallen actually has retired – only five players out of the 34 are a reasonable chance to be picked for NSW: Paul Vaughan, Cameron McInnes, James Tamou, Jack De Belin, and Matt Moylan. And it is quite possible that none of them will be.

    That Des Hasler – a man who played for the City side many times – would not let his players take part in the match is not unreasonable at all. It is a very logical position to take. It is an unnecessary risk for his players for a very small chance that it will open up the NSW selection door.

    And as the NRL have declared this will be the last City vs Country match there is no reason to support it whatsoever.

    The only reason I can see that the match was even scheduled this season was so that Channel Nine would have something to show this Sunday afternoon.

    Forgive me if I don’t think that is even vaguely a good enough reason to risk injury to my clubs players. They should have planned to show Weekend at Bernie’s instead.

    Rest in peace, City vs Country. I hope your corpse is never exhumed again.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.