AFL rep footy finally back on the table

Vince Rugari Columnist

By Vince Rugari, Vince Rugari is a Roar Expert

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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
    Vince Rugari

    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 Australian Associate Press

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    The Crowd Says (43)

    • March 13th 2012 @ 9:25am
      Cameron said | March 13th 2012 @ 9:25am | ! Report

      You are right about that when clubs restricted the big names from the original SOO due to injury fears, it killed SOO off. We can see this happening with International rules. The big names were not picked last October (albeit due to a flawed selection policy rather than keeping stars from injury), and subsequently interest was lost in the series and I suspect may have consequently killed future interest in the series.

      If a new, revamped SOO was to work and kindle fan, I think it should wait a number of years for game development in states like NSW and QLD so they can at least be somewhat competitive to teams like VIC and WA. Having several competitive states would also give the series differentation from RL SOO, and so therefore kindle interest that way and less likely to be accused of copying RL SOO due to more comptitive teams being involved in comparison. More even competion would also foster interest in top players actually wanting to play and if this happens, clubs will be more willing to let their top players play.

    • March 13th 2012 @ 9:47am
      BigAl said | March 13th 2012 @ 9:47am | ! Report

      The only way you’d get genuine interest for Aussie Rules SOO is to have it played by WAGS ! – preferably wearing lingerie.

      • Columnist

        March 13th 2012 @ 9:49am
        Vince Rugari said | March 13th 2012 @ 9:49am | ! Report

        Reasonable compromise. Curtain-raiser?

    • March 13th 2012 @ 10:19am
      Greg Mac said | March 13th 2012 @ 10:19am | ! Report

      Now that we’ve got the giants/sydney and Suns/Lions, I think a NSW v Queensland would get a lot of attention in the Northern states…
      If only because NSW and Queensland just hate each other THAT much! Would give NSW fans a chance of winning a SoO for a change too!

      I like a rotating Vic vs SA vs WA format too… Keeps the motivation to win.

    • March 13th 2012 @ 10:29am
      camtherose said | March 13th 2012 @ 10:29am | ! Report

      State of Origin is not required in the AFL.

      Vince surmises that ‘the fans want it’. They have a funny way of showing it.

      After a couple of minutes of research, I have found that the last six official state of origin matches that were played between 1996-1999 attracted an average crowd of 22059. Home and away crowds over this period attracted an average crowd of 32598.

      The ‘fans that wanted it’ showed their passion and fervour for state of origin to such an extent that they showed up in 30% fewer numbers!

      This is the final word on the subject.

      • March 13th 2012 @ 11:02am
        Lucan said | March 13th 2012 @ 11:02am | ! Report

        I think Vince would be referring to the fan polls run by the Hun and the Footy Record in recent times, and the players poll via the AFLPA. Those numbers do show more FOR than AGAINST State of Origin.

      • Columnist

        March 13th 2012 @ 11:02am
        Vince Rugari said | March 13th 2012 @ 11:02am | ! Report

        Did you count the nearly 70k that went to Victoria v Dream Team in 08?

        I’m well aware of the crowd figures of SoO games in the 90s. As I child I went to the ones at Footy Park with my old man, and those games are some of my earliest footy memories.

        If you read on in my yarn, I conceded that the interest in SoO went down over the years for a handful of different reasons, and they’re all fair enough. But there’s an opportunity to bring it back, the AFLPA cared enough to talk about it in their CBA discussions, most people I speak to would love to have it back… It may not be required, but it’d be awesome.

        • March 13th 2012 @ 11:50am
          camtherose said | March 13th 2012 @ 11:50am | ! Report

          ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is a cliche for a reason. We often look back fondly on things that we haven’t seen or heard of in some time.

          But like the drop kick, king-hits, and full strength beer in the outer, state of origin belongs to a bygone era, and has no place in the world of the modern professional footballer.

          In my opinion, and the late 90’s showed this to be true, players like the ‘idea’ of SoO more than they like playing it. Eventually, they realise that their number one goal in their football life is to play in a premiership, and any concept outside of club football compromises this view.

          If we need any further proof of the elite players lack of interest in representative football, let’s look at last years International Rules series held at home. Only one All-Australian felt compelled to play against the Irish (Stephen Milne). With all due respect to the likes of Richard Douglas, Jake King, Ben McGlynn, Easton Wood and David Wojcinski, we were seeing a line-up of tradesmanlike footballers and journeymen.

          If we need further evidence of the players self interest, let’s look at the calibre of footballer called upon where there was an all-expenses paid trip to Ireland in the offing – four All-Australian’s made the trip over (Swan, Montagna, Riewoldt, Frawley), not including players the quality of Adam Goodes, Dustin Fletcher, Bryce Gibbs, Matthew Boyd and Jarrad McVeigh.

          The same ‘fans’ that want State of Origin back were no doubt part of the 109513 people who saw the IR series in 1999. By 2005 crowds were down to 84526, and then last year a paltry 35466.

          Damning statistics if you ask me.

          • Columnist

            March 13th 2012 @ 1:06pm
            Vince Rugari said | March 13th 2012 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

            Fair argument, I disagree, but you can’t use International Rules as a reason why SoO wouldn’t work. Completely different concepts.

            • March 13th 2012 @ 1:27pm
              Poohdini said | March 13th 2012 @ 1:27pm | ! Report

              It is a good argument because cam has displayed that there is limiited player interest in non premiership season football. Why would people want to watch the sports second offering?

    • Roar Pro

      March 13th 2012 @ 10:43am
      Gav said | March 13th 2012 @ 10:43am | ! Report

      I think a 2 tier system is the way to approach it, with promotion/relegation.

      Tier 1: VIC, SA, WA
      Tier 2: NSW/ACT, QLD, NT/TAS

      – Each team plays one another in their tier, with a bye each round.
      – Bottom team from Tier 1 is relegated to Tier 2
      – Top team from Tier 2 is promoted to Tier 1

    • March 13th 2012 @ 2:15pm
      Gucci said | March 13th 2012 @ 2:15pm | ! Report

      I only started following AFL in the last 10 years or so, so there’s a lot about this I don’t understand. I fail to see why SOO can be successful in NRL but not AFL and also fail to see why a lot of issues are so big. To name a few:

      1. Scheduling – Why can’t they do they same as NRL? Mid-season 3 Wednesday night games, with selected players to miss normal club matches on weekends.

      2. Player injuries – Doesn’t NRL have to encounter the same?

      3. Focus being on winning a flag – Are people here saying NRL players care less about winning the flag than AFL players? Surely that can’t be true.

      4. National game – NRL is also a national game isn’t it, with clubs in 3 states.

      5. Fan interest – This is the one I just can’t get my head around. Take the WA for example. I would love to see Buddy, Dean Cox, Sandilands, McPharlin play in the same team. And it doesn’t make any difference that I’m not from WA. How can any AFL fan not want to see that?

      • March 13th 2012 @ 5:12pm
        Australian Rules said | March 13th 2012 @ 5:12pm | ! Report

        A large part of the reason was that despite WA and SA having some success, Victoria was generally too strong. It WAS big (1989 Vic v SA drew over 90,000 spectators) but slowly died out due to fading public interest and less support from the clubs.

        For example, Malthouse (Eagles coach) was coaching WA and would rest his best WCE players from Origin so as not to risk injury to them. It’s understandable…Clubs get huge bonus money, fans, members, extra sponsorship dollars etc for winning the Premiership…risking all that for an exhibition game just didn’t seem worth it.

        The AFL competition also became truly more national and so the old rivalries between the WAFL, SANFL and VFL diminished and the administrators and public seemed to embrace a more cohesive effort to grow the game Australia-wide. There simply wasn’t the angst that existed between the QRL and the NSWRL for example.

        I agree with your last point…it’d be nice to see champions players alongside each other (’89 was a great example)…but that time has passed.

      • Roar Guru

        March 13th 2012 @ 11:05pm
        The Cattery said | March 13th 2012 @ 11:05pm | ! Report


        These are fair enough questions.

        If you go back 100+ years, they used to hold Carnivals where all the states were represented (and even NZ competed in at least two of them).

        As time went on, the situation in Victoria paralleled that of NSW and League, i.e. it became the premier competition and pinched players from the other 3 footy states, and the disdain that SA and WA felt for Victoria was pretty much on par with the disdain that Queensland felt for NSW – pretty much identical circumstances, except for two key differences:

        1. Victorians never really quite reciprocated the fervour and disdain; and
        2. with 3 states involved (potentially 4 states), it makes it that little bit more complicated than having two states.

        Also, we have the additional complication that all the states and territories are capable of getting half-decent teams together, and indeed some of the greatest players from the last 20 years do not come from the three major footy states (e.g. James Hird, Wayne Carey, Nathan Buckley, Nick Riewoldt, etc.) – so how can you justify having a three-way SOO when so many great players can’t be represented?

        This is what the argument about the national competition is all about – players come from all over Australia, and that is increasing, so you either do it with all 8 states and territories, or you don’t bother with it. The idea of just having Vic/WA/SA is completely contrary to the notion of a national competition.

        With your argument about mid-week games – it’s impossible – the AFL gave up on mid-week games 20 years ago, it’s now enshrined in the players’ agreement, it will never come back – elite Australian Football is not the sort of game you can play with a three day break.

        Does the AFL have a greater focus on winning the flag? Well, it effectively ensures that by ignoring SOO. I can recall Wally Lewis saying that to him SOO was more important than winning the premiership – so yes, maybe there is a cultural difference between League and aussie rules.

        • March 14th 2012 @ 2:03pm
          Gucci said | March 14th 2012 @ 2:03pm | ! Report

          I see, thanks for the explanation. It sounds to me lik the biggest issue is about the lack of relevance of AFL to states. Like you said, either have 8 teams (which would be administratively impossible, and some teams will be utterly crap), or why bother at all with just 3 (some people have already said they don’t like the combined states option).

          But I think you misunderstood my question about mid-week games. In NRL, the selected players don’t play for their clubs during the Origin weeks. They go to camp and do special training. So there won’t be any issue with recovering in 3 days.

          I also don’t buy the argument about coaches withholding their best players. There’s no reason why NRL can’t do the same either, but they don’t, because everyone loves Origin. And the fact is, NRL players do very often get injured during Origin. So this is more an attitude towards Origin thing rather than protecting the player thing I reckon.

          • Roar Guru

            March 14th 2012 @ 2:49pm
            The Cattery said | March 14th 2012 @ 2:49pm | ! Report


            Ok – I now better understand your query about mid-week games, and to be honest, as you describe it would be even worse in AFL land! Collingwood fans would burn down the town fall if their 4 or 5 best players went into camp for a week to play SOO and missed out on playing for their team on the weekend – they’d have kittens!

            Believe me mate, this sort of stuff happened in the 70s, and everyone went ballistic over it – it will never, ever happen again.

            Our recent experience with SOO, during the time of the Allies concept, is that the top players pulled out – they took the opportunity to freshen up and get over niggly injuries rather than play in a concept that was less important than the premiership.

            The evidence is there, it’s precisely why the AFL doesn’t push it – there is no clamour for it – and with good reason.

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