State of Origin eve was like the night before Christmas back in the day. To be honest, it was bigger than the grand final – unless it was one of those rare occasions when the Tigers were involved – or a Kangaroos Test.
Since the 2017 World Cup there has been a shift. Some players are rejecting Origin for their heritage nations and half the English team are testing themselves in the NRL. The concept’s credentials as the ‘best of the best’ are starting to be questioned.
In the early ’80s, when the concept was conceived by a bunch of Queensland officials sitting around in a back room with a case of XXXX, it was exactly the boost the Australian game wanted – and needed.
International rugby league at that time was on its knees with Australia totally dominant, Great Britain in decline, and New Zealand competitive only part of the time. The Kangaroos earned the ‘Invincibles’ title after making short work of Great Britain and France on a tour in 1982.
The strongest competition was always going to come from within. Essentially Australia A and Australia B. The fact that rugby league was, and still is, dominant in just two states made it easy. It was as close as you were ever going to get to the best players in the world competing against each other.
As insular as that view was it was also pretty close to the mark.
Thirty-something years and millions of dollars of revenue on, the series still stands the test of time – and the crowds and ratings will validate it.
I want to see if the Blues can go two in a row or if normal transmission resumes and the Maroons pull off yet another heroic comeback.
I am keen to see whether Nathan Cleary can get himself out of the Penrith doldrums and show what he can do this series.
I am excited by the thought of a team possessing a backline that includes Latrell Mitchell, James Tedesco and Josh Addo-Carr, with David Klemmer and Paul Vaughan up front.
I am in awe of the talents of Kalyn Ponga, who will have room to weave magic at fullback, while Cameron Munster can provide the sort of quality play that can win matches for Queensland.
This is rugby league at its best. People who don’t regularly watch the sport will tune in because it is the best quality played at the highest intensity. It remains a shining advertisement for a great game.
So what’s the downside? State of Origin still works but how long can a two-state competition be the pinnacle? If we believe it will continue to be the best against the best then we really do have an insular view.
The international game has been revived from near death. England are a very competitive side, the World Cup final in Brisbane proved that, New Zealand have been consistently strong for some time and Tonga have arrived as a force.
Rugby league is expanding and developing outside Australia at an unprecedented rate, with the Pacific, Americas and Europe all moving forward.
Greece are close to making their first ever World Cup, Toronto Wolfpack might play in the RFL Super League in the near future, Ottawa and New York are likely to debut in the lower divisions, and Pacific nations will play more internationals than ever through the Oceania Cup.
I could go on but let’s return to the Origin arena.
A group of the best NRL players can’t be involved in the contest either by choice or never being eligible. Sam Burgess, John Bateman, Josh Hodgson, Andrew Fifita, Jason Taumalolo and Tevita Pangai Junior won’t be playing. Unless the ARLC come up with a different contest or make radical changes to the eligibility rules, it will always be the case.
It is not uncommon in the northern hemisphere to question why a player would rate an Origin jersey above that of their nation.
For an outsider, it is difficult to understand. The build-up, the passion and the blanket media coverage, that might – for instance – include whether particular players are going to sing the national anthem, are unique in the rugby league world.
Television ratings have been consistently high for 30-odd years and it is still considered the game’s showpiece. At least in Australia.
The times they are a-changin’ however and it seems not long before the international game takes precedence as countries outside Australia continue to build and strengthen and NRL players declare allegiance to their heritage nations.
Origin will always have a place in the heart of fans. I will be watching tomorrow from an Irish pub in Athens with a bunch of Greeks who play and love the game.
Whether it will always be the greatest rugby league show on Earth is debatable.