Everywhere I look in Australian sports media is negative rhetoric surrounding the state of our great, diverse, globally prevalent and – most importantly – rapidly growing game of rugby.
Discussed to death have been the reasons for this decline in national interest, including the misallocation of limited resources, the top management level, a neglect of the game at a grassroots level, and the decrease in the on-field success of our professional teams.
It is easy to see how these factors are both intertwined and have compounded as a result of each other.
Unfortunately, even our best efforts will only slowly reverse these cycles and ameliorate the public image of rugby in Australia.
More importantly, the constant comparisons between rugby union and rugby league, and our apparent desire to model our game on that of our cross-code rivals, only further impedes the former’s repair.
League provides a blueprint for many ways to improve, not only in fixtures and competition structure, but also in marketing and management. However, an obsession with replicating the most appealing facets of league will only lead to the further downfall of Australian rugby and a neglect of our natural strengths.
The most prominent of these attempts is the proposal by Hamish McLennan and Rob Clarke of a rugby State of Origin.
A ‘State of Union’ fixture would underwhelm and distract us from the more important aspects of the domestic game. Instead of innovating our own competitions, it appears McLennan and Clarke wish to latch onto the popularity of the league equivalent, where they will inevitably reside second best.
State of Union will fail. State versus state fixtures are already built into the fabric of the game, as NSW and Queensland – not to mention the ACT, Victoria and Western Australia – contest each other in home-and-away Super Rugby fixtures.
Particularly for NSW and Queensland, players largely play for their home states. Australian derbies have delivered us some classic matches over the decades, but recently they have also delivered us some slow-paced slug fests, which have been a good excuse for any casual fan to change the channel at halftime.
State of Origin works for rugby league by nature. The NRL is contested by village teams from suburban Sydney and Brisbane, plus a smattering of others. It pits local towns against each other, naturally drawing the buzz word ‘tribalism’. It is only for three games a year that the fans’ favourite stars unite to represent the Maroons and Blues for the prestigious Origin fixture.
In rugby, each of our five states play each other twice per year. There would be nothing special about an Origin concept implemented in rugby, at least in its current structure, because it wouldn’t be much different from our day-to-day.
In the NRL, there is little correlation between geographic borders and team representation, with players from all backgrounds making up each of the teams. The complete opposite situation is seen in rugby’s premier club competitions and in Super Rugby.
Even in the expansion sides of ACT, WA and Victoria, the fruits of the establishment of professional teams have been profound, with the pathways generating larger and stronger locally bred playing bases.
Despite this, there would be no sensible and fair way to include all five of our states without either merging the expansion states into a meaningless ‘Barbarians’ side or leaving NSW and Queensland with clear advantages in depth. Fundamentally we cannot facilitate a genuine State of Origin fixture that will be beneficial to growing our game.
State of Union is a flawed concept proposed purely to leverage the interest surrounding rugby league’s version and would not benefit Australian rugby.
McLennan and Clarke’s desire to ride league’s gravy train by implementing a half-hearted knock off would be another blocked-out period on the busy rugby calendar – an obstacle that prevents them from redesigning the national rugby picture and professional competitions effectively.
It is a short-sighted and uncreative idea that will not help junior clubs grow, nor assist the Wallabies win. It will simply be another victory for league.
With the coronavirus knocking the planned fixtures out of the park and new broadcast deals emerging, management have a clean slate to work with to implement new competition timings and structures. These changes will hopefully present a more appealing product to entice more fans to the game, but will also ideally be strategic, long-term investments that will strengthen our Super and Wallabies sides for decades to come.