The AFL is in denial. The game is being taken away from the fans, and the clubs are putting themselves ahead of the game itself.
Every year at about this time, we see one of the fundamental differences between the driving forces of the AFL and the NRL.
In the AFL, the pursuit of an elusive premiership comes first, and the promotion of the game is a distant second. In the NRL, the game comes first, and the premiership, while still being coveted, is not the be all and end all.
At various stages over the next two months, we’ll see the NRL’s most exciting players strut their stuff in a range of representative fixtures that are the toughest, fiercest and most intense rugby league matches of the season.
They’ve just played a Test match between Australia and New Zealand (well done Kiwis), there’s been the City versus Country match, and soon we’ll be watching the big one, the State of Origin series between NSW and Queensland.
For the players involved, and the club teams they represent, it’s considered the ultimate achievement to be selected for either NSW, Queensland or Australia. While it puts enormous pressure on the players selected to back up for their club the following weekend after these brutal confrontations, everyone is on board with the honor of playing representative football: the clubs, the coaches, the fans, and most importantly, the players themselves.
Very often, Origin games will result in injuries to players, or the turnaround time after a match is too short for some players to be at their best for when they return to club football the following weekend.
But here’s the difference; the clubs, coaches and players completely support the concept of State of Origin, which has evolved into the highlight of the national rugby league calendar, and one of the greatest modern day rivalries in Australian sport.
Last year, the third and deciding game in the Origin series on Channel Nine attracted a national TV audience of 4.058 million, including a five-city share of 2.596 million, making it the most watched program of the year. Then there’s Channel Nine‘s Origin website that racked up one million page views and about 500,000 streams of multi-camera angle replays.
State of Origin is now telecast into 91 countries around the world, and seems to generate more and more interest every year.
Since it was first played in 1980, many modern day legends of the game have forged their reputation in classic State of Origin confrontations. Queensland has players like Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga, Darren Lockyer, Alfie Langer, and more recently Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk, and Cameron Smith.
NSW has players like Andrew Johns, Andrew Ettinghausen, Steve Roach, Laurie Daly, and more recently Jarryd Hayne, Paul Gallen, Robbie Farah and Brett Morris.
The AFL is missing a huge opportunity to reinvent itself with the reintroduction of State of Origin at a time when crowd numbers and TV viewership is in decline.
Instead, they persist with a half-hearted attempt at representative fixturing. The most recent is the bizarre hybrid game of Australian rules football and Gaelic football called international rules football.
The game is played every couple of years between a selected Australian team made up from not necessarily the best AFL players, but the players who have put their hand up for it, and have the approval from their club to play.
They play against a combined team of Gaelic footballers from Ireland. Have you heard of anything more ridiculous?
It’s an OK spectacle, but someone forgot to tell the AFL Commission that it’s not the same game. In fact, it’s nothing like it. Different rules, different shaped ball, different shaped goals, different length field and different scoring system, which is probably why so many people are indifferent about it.
In its purest form, AFL is a spectacular game played with an oval-shaped leather ball that bounces unpredictably on a big field where powerful and athletic men hurl themselves about as they attempt to kick the ball between two vertical poles at either end of the field.
It’s a unique Australian game that is high scoring and great to watch. We’re also fortunate to have several states in the country where it is the dominant football code.
Imagine if we could see the best players available from each state. There could be a team from Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, plus a combined Allies team from NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and Northern Territory.
Just like State of Origin rugby league, there could be three games played in total. For example, Victoria versus South Australia, and Western Australia versus The Allies, followed by the grand final that’s played between the two winning teams.
It’s actually not hard to imagine. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, before the clubs started telling the AFL they wouldn’t allow their best players to play in case they were injured, there were some great State of Origin contests.
If you’d like to see how passionate the contests were, check out the following video clip of legendary Victorian coach Ted Whitten who yelled to his winning Victorian team after they’d just beaten South Australia, “You stuck it up em, that’s what you did. You stuck it up right em!”
It’s fabulous stuff.
It’s also worth noting that the AFL has made significant rule changes in the last ten years or so to protect players from reckless and intentional acts that can injure players, which means the ‘king hits’, ‘coat-hangers’ and ‘fisty cuffs’ that were more common in days gone by are now a thing of the past.
While they might not admit it, the AFL has something lying in their bottom drawer that has already proven itself to be a very popular concept. It’s called State of Origin (Andrew Demetriou hated the idea, but he’s now gone.) If the new CEO of the AFL Commission, Gillon McLachlan, who claims he wants the game to go back to the fans, can’t make it happen, then there’s something seriously wrong somewhere.
The game should be aiming for the stars by featuring the stars of the game from each state at some stage of the season. Instead, the fans are served up round after round of club football with many supporters losing interest mid-year as it becomes apparent their team won’t make the finals. The game is so much better than that, and the fans deserve so much better than that.
While this is allowed to happen, the NRL have State of Origin, and everything that goes with it, all stitched up.