Never mind the farewell game, City-Country is already dead

Tim Gore Columnist

By Tim Gore, Tim Gore is a Roar Expert

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42 Have your say

    At 4pm this Sunday one of the least anticipated matches in the history of rugby league will take place. The last ever City versus Country Origin match will be played at Glen Willow Oval in Mudgee.

    However, the biggest question hanging over this match isn’t who will win, it is why they are even bothering to play it.

    Just like a Weekend at Bernie’s sequel, the NRL is dragging the dead body around of a once proud event one more time and no one quite understands why.

    AFL coach Mick Malthouse once wrote that when a player started talking to him about retirement he would never encourage them to go around again because they were probably already half checked out. Mick’s logic is that to be effective at the top level a football player must be fully committed or they will inevitably fail.

    And so it is with rugby league fixtures. Once they have been earmarked for the scrapheap there is no point whatsoever in continuing them.

    Unlike a champion’s last game, once an event has been declared surplus to demands it loses all ability to inspire passion, interest and – as has clearly been the case this week – participation.

    That City coach Brad Fittler was unable to name a full squad by the allotted time on Monday because he couldn’t get players to agree to play on his team was an inevitable consequence of the telegraphing of the game’s demise.

    As soon as the NRL decided to kill off the event there should have been zero consideration of “one last hurrah” for the fixture.

    The event was played yearly from 1928 until 1998. After a three-year hiatus, it was brought back in 2001. That would seem to suggest that it is part of the fabric of Australian rugby league. So why is it being subjected to such an ignominious and drawn out execution?

    The answer is painfully simple: the game doesn’t really matter to anyone and it hasn’t for a very long time.

    It has been strung along well past its use by date for the benefit of Country rugby league. Though there have been two efforts to revive the concept, both were as effective as attempts to revive Bernie’s corpse.

    The first attempt at resuscitation occurred in 1987 when the selection rules were changed to recognise a player’s origin. Previously to that point any player who was playing in the then NSWRL was considered eligible to play for the City team, regardless of where they came from.

    Unsurprisingly, that led to a very long period of City dominance. Between 1963 and 1986 the Country team won just two of the 25 games.

    The institution of the Origin rules did make the results closer, however, the City side still won the next five games.

    Perhaps that was assisted by some interesting definitions of ‘City’ used when selecting some of the teams. This included selecting Queanbeyan born, bred and raised Glen Lazarus in the 1989 City side.

    However, the idea still could not capture the hearts and minds of the supporters. Their attention had already been well and truly stolen away by a much greater battle against a common and vicious foe.

    Born in 1980, by 1987 State of Origin was already a behemoth. Whereas the City/Country match may have once swelled the passion and parochialism of crowds and players, by 1987 the only Origin selections anyone really cared about in NSW were the ones made for sky blue jerseys.

    While Laurie Daley managed to drive his team to an inspiring victory in 1992, the matches were at best a side show.

    The one thing that gave them some validity was that they were still used as a selection tool for the NSW State of Origin Team.

    From 1987 until the Super League war* there is strong evidence to back up the games use in that regard:

    Year City/Country Origin players picked for NSW Blues Percentage of participants
    1987 18 85.7%
    1988 20 83.3%
    1989 18 66.66%
    1990 18 72.2%
    1991 15 62.5%
    1992 18 85.7%
    1993 19 82.6%
    1994 19 90.5%
    1996 16 94.1%
    *1995 not included due to selection exclusions based on issues other than form.

    In among all of the turmoil of the Packer versus Murdoch battle for control of rugby league, the City versus Country game disappeared for three seasons. Many of us thought it was dead. I certainly did.

    But then – just like Bernie in the Virgin Islands – up popped the corpse in 2001.

    However, unlike before, the match featured virtually no players that went on to play for NSW in that year’s State of Origin series. Only two of the 34 players from the City versus Country match were among the 25 who represented NSW that year. That was a pitiful eight per cent.

    Not only were none of the country players actually drawn from country teams anymore, the game was clearly not used for selection anymore.

    I looked on in horror as the corpse was dragged out.

    But they didn’t stop.

    It became a meaningless exhibition game whose only purpose was to give lip service to the Country rugby league and needlessly risk players to injury. Players considered certainties to play for NSW were given a free pass to skip the match.

    Due to the utter dominance of Queensland causing NSW to desperately search for options, the City versus Country match has served as limited pathway to the NSW Origin side in recent years:

    Year City/Country Origin players picked for NSW Blues Percentage of participants
    2013 8 36.3%
    2014 7 31.8%
    2015 4 20%
    2016 6 27.2%

    Of the players press-ganged into this year’s City vs Country game – assuming Paul Gallen actually has retired – only five players out of the 34 are a reasonable chance to be picked for NSW: Paul Vaughan, Cameron McInnes, James Tamou, Jack De Belin, and Matt Moylan. And it is quite possible that none of them will be.

    That Des Hasler – a man who played for the City side many times – would not let his players take part in the match is not unreasonable at all. It is a very logical position to take. It is an unnecessary risk for his players for a very small chance that it will open up the NSW selection door.

    And as the NRL have declared this will be the last City vs Country match there is no reason to support it whatsoever.

    The only reason I can see that the match was even scheduled this season was so that Channel Nine would have something to show this Sunday afternoon.

    Forgive me if I don’t think that is even vaguely a good enough reason to risk injury to my clubs players. They should have planned to show Weekend at Bernie’s instead.

    Rest in peace, City vs Country. I hope your corpse is never exhumed again.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.

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    The Crowd Says (42)

    • Roar Guru

      May 4th 2017 @ 5:31am
      Dutski said | May 4th 2017 @ 5:31am | ! Report

      As a proud country lad I have always loved this game and maybe I’m the only one sorry to see it go. This year is a farce though and a mercy killing at the announcement would have been right. In addition to all the other whys I’m thinking finucane ar prop again? Why? Peachey for City? How?
      I do want to raise one point though Tim. You are right that rarely in the recent past has the game been a realistic selection trial in determining who goes in to the Origin team. However it does serve a role in seeing who shouldn’t be under consideration. More than once I’ve heard it said that a great city-country won’t definitely see you get a sky blue jersey, but a bad city-country will definitely see you ruled out.

      • May 4th 2017 @ 5:25pm
        Norad said | May 4th 2017 @ 5:25pm | ! Report

        Can a NRL story be written by NRL media without including a mention of a AFL nobody in Sydney never heard of?

        • May 4th 2017 @ 5:30pm
          Justin Kearney said | May 4th 2017 @ 5:30pm | ! Report

          Come on norad. Michael monkhouse is nearly as famous as kevin shonkey and ronny bearass!

        • Roar Guru

          May 4th 2017 @ 5:37pm
          Dutski said | May 4th 2017 @ 5:37pm | ! Report

          Um, norad… not sure who that reply was to. Happy to chat afl or league or any sport with a ball or ball substitute.
          Curling? How about curling?

          • May 5th 2017 @ 6:38pm
            mariachi band fan said | May 5th 2017 @ 6:38pm | ! Report

            Norad just didn’t want his “excellent” comment hidden on page 4 where no one but his mum would see it.

            It’s becoming more common on this site, sadly.

      • May 5th 2017 @ 1:03pm
        jossoc said | May 5th 2017 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

        Dutski, Tim
        Given the performance of the NSW origin team over the last decade, you could make an argument that the fixture should stay on the calendar, and anyone in consideration must play (bar injury).

        There should be more competition for NSW jumpers, and stand out performances should result in NSW jerseys. It would place more meaning to the fixture, and a add an edge to the Origin team.

        Tim, it’s no surprise that the high percentages of city country selection ended in NSW wins. Not the be all and end all, but a contributing factor.

    • Roar Guru

      May 4th 2017 @ 5:47am
      The Barry said | May 4th 2017 @ 5:47am | ! Report

      I’ve historically loved this game. In the early-mid 90s I played rugby with a lot of country boys and we’d always make a point of watching it and having a few beers.

      In the late 90s I hooked up with a girl from the NSW south coast who I ended up marrying. I’ve had many enjoyable nights watching this game with her brother and/or dad.

      It was always a bit manufactured because while they were passionate country supporters I was never that crazy about following Sydney and wanting to see those country blokes smashed. In some ways I was the villain for dramatic reasons only. But it was fun.

      Unfortunately that’s all in the past. The game has been turned completely meaningless. Test players are unavailable. Origin certainties don’t get selected and even fringe players don’t seem to want to play it. It ends up 3rd or 4th tier. Even then it could have meany something, but even if a fringe player shot the lights out in city country he was never going to get selected. Just thrown into the vague ‘player of the future’ list. Throw in scheduling issues like four day turnarounds and it’s no wonder they can’t get enough starters.

      It’s sad to see it go because of what it’s meant and represented in the past but it’s time.

      • May 4th 2017 @ 10:57am
        Geoff from Bruce Stadium said | May 4th 2017 @ 10:57am | ! Report

        Case in point – after scoring three tries against country in Wagga in 2015 the headline on the back page the next day read

        City rookie Blake Austin powers into NSW contention

        It never happened

        I used to barrack for country against city in the past just to see the underdog get up but haven’t really cared in recent years as the fixture has descended into farce. In fact I hate the whole weekend as a rugby league supporter. I’m probably going to get howled down here but even the test match lacks any atmosphere. I went to the last Australia vs NZ test played in Canberra in 2013 – it got a huge crowd of 26,000 – but it was about as interesting as watching paint dry.Absolutely devoid of atmosphere. The crowd ended up doing the Mexican wave they were that bored. I’ve seen Raiders games with 6,000 people at the ground that have had more atmosphere.

        The whole weekend is a complete waste of time. All it ends up doing is give a huge leg up to AFL as sports followers search around for a decent contest to watch.

        • May 4th 2017 @ 11:25am
          Branko said | May 4th 2017 @ 11:25am | ! Report

          Spot on Geoff re that test match. The build up to that game was terrific, however the game itself was a bludger and the atmosphere was non-existent to the point of being quite eerie.

          That being said, I did consider going this time around but the $130 to get through the gates with my family was a bit of an obstacle.

    • May 4th 2017 @ 6:12am
      Swanny said | May 4th 2017 @ 6:12am | ! Report

      The nrl may rate well on tv in the bush but
      The playing numbers have dwindled in the bush for the last 30 years , it will never die completely, but it’s in a sad sorry decay

      super league , channel 9. nrl havrnt given a rats for bush rugby league

      • Roar Guru

        May 4th 2017 @ 6:46am
        The Barry said | May 4th 2017 @ 6:46am | ! Report

        Junior league in the inner city isn’t doing much better. My 6 year old has started playing this year and there’s a massive struggle for numbers. Where there used to be junior clubs everywhere now it’s one kid from each surrounding suburb. It’s been a shock.

        • May 4th 2017 @ 11:14am
          kk said | May 4th 2017 @ 11:14am | ! Report

          I read most of your posts. None has stunned me more than this one.

          On that score Moore Park has a bigger problem than Houston.

    • Roar Rookie

      May 4th 2017 @ 7:04am
      Squidward said | May 4th 2017 @ 7:04am | ! Report

      I’m actually very interested in seeing City retain the shield for enternity and really rub it into the country yokels. Shame we are missing our islander players that are city born

      • Roar Guru

        May 4th 2017 @ 12:09pm
        Dutski said | May 4th 2017 @ 12:09pm | ! Report

        Oh, that seals it. Yokels indeed! I nearly spat out my corn cob pipe and had to adjust my bib and brace overalls!
        Go Country!

    • May 4th 2017 @ 7:05am
      jamesb said | May 4th 2017 @ 7:05am | ! Report

      There are ways to replace City/ Country.

      -Have teams from the Country playing in the NSW Cup

      -Have an NRL country round. Eight teams host their home games in the Bush. The following year, the other eight teams host.

      -Each NRL team would have a country area to concentrate on with regards to players and juniors.

      City/ Country died due to unsuitable scheduling. People who have criticized the NRL for getting rid of it, are the same people who haven’t come up with a solution as far as scheduling the City/Country game is concerned.

      Anyway, FWIW, I’ll be watching the A League grand final.

      • May 4th 2017 @ 8:42am
        andrew said | May 4th 2017 @ 8:42am | ! Report


        i think you could have a Country origin team play a NSW Cup rep side and it would have some meaning as a chance for Country players to represent their region and to showcase themselves for possible opportunities in NSW Cup and beyond for the future. Fox would probably play it as a curtain raiser to a 5:30 game on a Saturday but Nine wouldn’t have a bar of it.
        So to me that points the blame at the NRL for not having the ability to think outside the box and/or put the pressure back on their commercial broadcaster to deliver more content (not just custard pies in the face on a Thursday night)

    • May 4th 2017 @ 7:40am
      Agent11 said | May 4th 2017 @ 7:40am | ! Report

      Such a negative article. The people who get to go see the game in Mudgee will appreciate it for one last time, maybe meet some NRL stars, get an autograph or a selfie. It’s not ideal for players and clubs but the game doesn’t mean much but it is what it is.

      • Columnist

        May 4th 2017 @ 8:22am
        Tim Gore said | May 4th 2017 @ 8:22am | ! Report

        Can the mudgee people not get that exact experience with two NRL teams playing there for real competition points?
        In that scenario they play their best side too.

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