The jewel in rugby league’s crown is under threat of mediocrity.
The numbers behind the Origin concept are stronger than ever, the thirst for this contest is so intense it transcends the bounds of the combatant states to even permeate into AFL heartlands, and the rugby union cathedral of New Zealand.
So such a statement seems hyperbolic on this account. Yet what it is worth noting though is Origin’s branding into the social consciousness was built on a tribal concept, dividing Queensland and New South Wales into allegiances rather than residency.
This concept poured petrol on an already raging fire, as rugby league thrives on the clandestine.
That petrol tank though after nearly 40 years is now running low, and it has very little to do with Queensland’s recent dominance.
The concept is being eroded by constant player eligibility issues. For the record I have no issue with any Pacific Island national-Australian citizen declaring his allegiance for his now native state. It is only natural for him to want to represent. The gripe that rugby league wrestles with when considering this issue though is will these controversial selections kill the passion in the contest?
My answer is yes, eventually it will.
The recent revamp to international eligibility laws have not provided enough clarity, and only further confused the representative structure. I will not argue against the tiered international system as I have not heard a better solution, but I definitely think the current format can be improved greatly.
Origin must expand to the Pacific nations and New Zealand.
The Pacific nations contribute an incredible amount to the diversity and intensity of rugby league contests around the world, they deserve better than what is being served up right now and so does rugby league.
State of Origin is Australia’s second tier rep comp, why wouldn’t we want to include these nations in a structured second tier Origin format? Anyone who remembers how hard Samoa pushed New Zealand in the 2014 Four Nations will know that there is potential for a boil over and genuine contender status.
Competition would be fierce and more importantly tribalism would be embraced.
Here is who it could breakdown.
New Zealand would be the trickiest prospect among a Pacific breakdown. The Kiwi and Kangaroo sides would need to be separated from Origin. They would need to be treated like touring sides to allow those jerseys to be further coveted, similar to the structure of the British Lions.
This leaves New Zealand needing a side to represent their Maori, Pakeha, and New Zealand-born and bred. Aotearoa performing the haka against Queensland in a Pacific Origin final, in front of a sold out Eden Park would send a shiver up the spine of New Zealand rugby union’s administration.
Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji
Without a doubt these three sides would benefit hugely from a Pacific Origin competition. Having their own rivalries played out on a grander stage, and being allowed to pit their passion and pride against the rugby league benchmark in Queensland and New South Wales would equal a quantum leap in support and talent development for these nations.
The hearts and minds campaign in the Pacific is a strategic battleground for the NRL. If you do not believe you can win then you surely cannot win. Rugby league must believe that it can be the first choice sport among these nations.
By creating Pacific Origin representation they give themselves an opportunity to achieve that, and with the growing footprint of rugby sevens time is of the essence. Strangling the supply of Pacific playing talent, representative stars, and supporters to New Zealand rugby union would allow the NRL to claim decisive long term victories.
Groundswell community support for these three nations in Origin across Australia and New Zealand creates the opportunity needed for the rugby union status quo to be challenged in the entire region.
Papua New Guinea
The only nation on earth in which rugby league is the national sport. The professional player pool for Papua New Guinea is much smaller than the other Pacific nations which sees them struggle to be competitive.
The Queensland Cup team is surely helping with this situation, but as the PM’s XIII proved last week there is still a while to go.
Distilling the Australian and New Zealand talent further will surely allow for a better opportunity for Papua New Guinea to get a foothold. By all accounts State of Origin is a phenomenon in Papua New Guinea, adding Papua New Guinea to an Origin competition could be the watershed moment needed for the further development of Papua New Guinea rugby league national pathways.
Queensland and New South Wales
How a larger competition would pan out for these two fierce rivals would remain to be seen. The issues would be similar to the transition for the Beldisloe Cup in relation to the Tri-Nations, and now Rugby Championship.
The exciting prospect for these two teams would be the opportunity to create new and maybe even just as intense rugby league rivalries. Extending the rugby league representative calendar further enhances the strengths of league in the struggle with the AFL.
The major sticking point is touching the State of Origin golden goose. There is the fear of ruining what already their premier product. So naturally any decisions that surround this cash cow are treated with great trepidation. This is the exact opposite approach that is needed to if we are to ever see any progress in regional representative rugby league.
The same success that followed the natural representative approach for Queensland and New South Wales in 1980 can be replicated again here in 2016 using the past as a blueprint for success.
Fortune favours the brave.