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MASCORD: The numbers don't lie, State of Origin is the people's game

James Tamou is off to Penrith. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)3
Expert
28th May, 2015
63
3423 Reads

Your correspondent is as big a proponent of international rugby league as you ever will find but to suggest that Test football has already supplanted Origin from a popular Australian perspective is simply laughable.

Wednesday night’s opening match between New South Wales and Queensland peaked at 4.029 million viewers nationally. The blog I do on the Sydney Morning Herald website, at one stage, had 30 times the audience it normally attracts on a Saturday.

Let’s get real, people.

A large proportion of those watching Origin I would be only vaguely aware Australia fields a national team in rugby league and would struggle to name more than two of the countries they play.

Hundreds of thousands would be completely unaware that the cream of the players on show was just beaten 26-12 by New Zealand, or that it was the Kiwis’ third consecutive victory against the green and golds.

And even if trans-Tasman games now feature a higher standard of football than NSW vs Queensland – regardless of widespread ignorance of that fact – that is hardly “international football”, is it? That’s two countries.

For international football to supplant Origin in the popular Australian consciousness, most of the games Australia play would need to be competitive. England are close to beating the Aussies, but there’s a massive drop-off after that.

I agreed with Mal Meninga’s description of Origin I – dour. I loved Josh Morris’ try, and the gripping finale. It wasn’t boring, but for long stretches it was dour, with incongruously brittle goalline defence at times.

My point here is this: Even though NSW are getting as thin in some positions as Queensland have always been – due to the increasing number of NRL players not eligible for either state – Origin will always engulf the eastern seaboard more or less the way it does now.

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Once sports, and sporting competitions, reach the status of being cultural touchstones, I really don’t think what takes place during play matters one iota. They become social rituals and people will get excited regardless of the quality of the spectacle.

The challenge for the sport is to park such assets in the right place, count the cash, and use it to reach those who didn’t grow up on cockroaches and cane toads.

Which brings us to what an interesting five days it is for rugby league from a future scheduling point of view.

First, we have Origin: something that will almost certainly be sold separately from 2017, from an NRL salesman standing on the corner between Saturday Street and Sunday Road. Maybe he can be coaxed to Friday Avenue – he might even wander to Monday Lane but that’s as far as the truck from which he is spruiking will go.

Take it or leave it.

I want to open this one to the floor: Melbourne football manager Frank Ponissi recently floated the idea of a Cup competition which starts in the pre-season and continues in the Origin period. This writer recently suggested a World Club Challenge that goes for three weeks in the pre-season, three weeks in the Origin period and concludes with semi-finals and a final after the domestic grand finals.

Would you be more likely to support club football during the Origin period if it was a separate competition with a separate crown up for grabs? If your also-ran team was suddenly in with a chance of winning silverware?

I don’t expect either of these ideas to come to fruition, regardless of your answer.

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The NRL wants to put a stop to clubs playing without their stars. The stand-alone weekends will be full of internationals, junior and domestic rep games – not club footy. And that’s fine.

Secondly, on Saturday and Sunday we have the Magic Weekend – an entire round of Super League played at St James Park in Newcastle.

This idea is likely to be floated in Australasia soon – perhaps even next year. It’s a property that will be shopped around to local events corporations in Australia and New Zealand.

I’m hearing the NRL would like to hold it at Eden Park – but surely that would be overkill if the Nines are there as well? Another question for the floor: would you travel to see your team play in a Magic Weekend?

What sort of destination would attract you to see something you can see at your local suburban oval every fortnight anyway? In England, it’s the sense of identity that brings rugby league fans together in a remote location, I suggest.

That doesn’t really exist in Australia because rugby league is so mainstream. So, would you go to Darwin or Perth or Wellington or Adelaide or Cairns (they need a bigger stadium first) – for the party as much as the footy?

Personally, anything that brings hardcore – rather than casual, Origin-type, league fans from more than one club together in Australia would be a good thing.

The sort of sense of identity and unity we will see at “the Toon” this weekend would be a great asset to the sport in Australia.

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Check out Michael Hagan’s tactical debrief from Origin I in Steve’s White Line Fever podcast below: