“Paul Gallen, here we come!”
Well, that’s another NRL round in the books. And just like every week, tries were scored, games were won and referees were chastised.
But on the eve of the most highly anticipated game of the year, we’re obliged to view it all with a rosy tinge as the focus swiftly turns to State of Origin football.
The truth is, though, that there was some severely sub-par club football played this week; a direct by-product of the ancient scheduling that continues to shoehorn the game’s biggest spectacle into a Wednesday night year after year.
One need only look at the miserable performances of four teams this weekend, all of whom lost their key contributors to Origin duty. The league leading Bulldogs looked anything but on Friday night, desperately missing the selective kicking and running game of halves combination Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson, fringe elusiveness of Josh Morris and forward pack assertiveness typically shouldered by the refreshingly in-form Tony Williams.
Just last night, South Sydney and Cronulla clashed in a tedious, low-scoring affair that had more to do with offensive ineptitude than it did elite defence.
Despite the shutout, the Rabbitohs looked nowhere near their scintillating best, missing reliable backrowers Chris McQueen and Ben Te’o, and of course, their superstar fullback Greg Inglis. The poor Sharkies, well, they were never really a chance without the tireless Paul Gallen and crafty Luke Lewis.
But each team’s performance paled in contrast to North Queensland’s dismal display in Canberra. Coming off a monstrous home win over the defending champs, the Cowboys were humbled by a hapless Raiders team that seemingly completed one in every three sets, yet still managed to invert the scoreline the ‘Boys ran up just one week ago.
Who were they missing? Who weren’t they missing? A pair of JTs in Thurston and Tamou, blue-chipper Brent Tate and enforcer Matt Scott were all absent in a crushing defeat that may weigh heavy in the race to the finals.
Seeing perfectly sound teams get unwillingly decimated at this time every year seems to have become a staple of the NRL. A decade earlier, we were treated to stories of the ‘baby Broncos’ pulling out a win despite donating 44 players to Queensland, and it appears very little has changed.
And although most fans have come to accept it, watching watered down versions of this great game being played by clubs with very real premiership aspirations ruins the integrity of the code. It’s time to finally embrace a set of three Origin-only rounds.
Of course, this wouldn’t be nearly as big an issue if it weren’t for the fact that we already have a rep round. Earlier this year, we were treated to a Friday night Test match not a single Kiwi selector across the land took seriously, followed by the Fiji-Samoa Test and Under 20’s State of Origin on Saturday, and a meaningless City-Country clash to close out the week.
And before delving any deeper, let’s be careful not to trivialise things too much. Any man who dons the colours of his country deserves to be honoured, and feel honoured in return. It is an incredible feat, displaying your wares not only as a footballer, but also as a true leader and competitor.
The problem lies in the logistics – can any true Rugby League fan claim to be more psyched to watch the Bati and Toa Samoa round than they are to see Origin One?
The move makes sense on all fronts. Designate an entire week for Origin hype while allowing players to prepare just as effectively without unjustly hindering their clubs. After all, if we can shine the national spotlight on a bunch of kids with a penchant for hurling homophobic slurs, surely we can bestow that same courtesy to the premier event of the Rugby League calendar.