Kayfabe is a professional wrestling term defined as “presenting staged performances as genuine or authentic”.
Think of it as steadfastly refusing to admit that you’re acting while standing on a stage.
Kayfabe is simple stuff. It has good guys (faces) and bad guys (heels) that all commit to their personas to make their sport about something more than the action in the ring and get people invested.
Of all the descriptions of the claim by Dean “Bulldog” Ritchie and others in the media that the 2020 Queensland Maroons side was the “worst in history”, kayfabe was the one that was most conspicuously absent and yet also the most appropriate.
After all, we are talking about a Queensland side that was stacked with grand final winners, grand finalists and Australian representatives.
This is a topic we have covered ad nauseam on recent episodes of the Voluntary Tackle podcast with host Aimon Brown, but given it has continued to be a proposition taken seriously, it is one worth exploring in more detail in written form.
Let’s start with the forward pack, as it’s always the most overlooked part of the game and it provides the platform for any success. Queensland’s starting props across all three games were Josh Papalii and Christian Welch.
Papalii is the Kangaroos’ starting rep, a grand finalist and to many the form prop of the NRL over the past few seasons. Meanwhile, Welch has developed into one of the most devastating props at the Melbourne Storm since joining them in 2015, winning two titles in the past four seasons. That’s not bad if you’re looking for go-forward.
Similarly with the second row and locks, Queensland had Melbourne machine men grand final champions in Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Felise Kaufusi as core starters, while they rotated with Panthers grand finalists and the likes of Jaydn Su’A from Souths through the rest of the series.
But many of the proponents of the “worst ever Queensland side” might have argued that the real mismatch was in the spine.
The Blues picked some in form players with a very in-form Nathan Cleary at seven and the choice between Luke Keary and Cody Walker at six, supported by the best fullback in the game and one of its zippiest hookers in Damien Cook.
But even here, when you break it down, it didn’t actually look that great for NSW.
The Queensland spine included the incumbent Kangaroos halves in Daly Cherry-Evans and Cameron Munster. Both players are premiership winners and considered among the most dynamic in the competition, and both had also played together on numerous occasions.
Meanwhile at hooker they had Jake Friend, a three-time premiership winner that has largely missed out on playing hooker for the Maroons and Australia due to the unfortunate fact that he has played the position during Cam Smith’s reign. On top of that, the Queenslanders had the luxury of an incredibly dynamic replacement in rookie of the year Harry Grant. That paid dividends when they decided to use him.
Fullback was considered the weakest position in the spine by comparison, but even there the Maroons had the good fortune of starting with an AJ Brimson, who had just had his best season to date. Brimson got injured and so they had to tinker by bringing in try-scoring machine Valentine Holmes and Souths’ rising star Corey Allan.
The outside backs was where the Blues had what seemed like the clearest edge, but without guaranteed go-forward and reliable combinations and distribution from the halves, it was always going to be tougher than many expected.
This is where the concept of kayfabe comes in. On the Voluntary Tackle we spoke to guests, ran polls and broadly discussed whether claiming this Queensland Origin side justified the “worst ever” billing that Dean Ritchie and those that followed him had given them. The response was near universal that it was so moronic that it was laughable.
The 2020 Origin series didn’t lack talking points. Taking place in a once-in-a-century pandemic that forced it to the end of the season to play in front of mostly socially-distanced stadiums, it was nothing if not unusual. And that’s not even mentioning the return of Wayne Bennett.
Yet, for all that – or perhaps because of it – it struggled to gain media traction and its ratings disappointed.
Ritchie’s column generated responses across the media landscape, with the likes of Paul Gallen chiming in to agree or disagree or just generally rev things up.
For all the reasons above, it was patently stupid stuff, but it achieved the desired effect of a full media cycle of outrage that spilled onto social media and into press conferences with players and coaches.
It was always a stupid claim, but it made for a bit of media theatre. Unfortunately, it also had the effect of setting a narrative up north that the heroes in maroon must rise up against the NSW menace and restore order.
It was so dominant that after the Maroons’ series win, Cherry-Evans made sure to reference the “worst ever” claim before he lifted the trophy.
Following that, Ritchie penned an apology piece that was so hammy it screamed kayfabe.
The question is: did the ruse work? Did the TV numbers go up?
Well, not really. Sure, the numbers trended up through the series to a high of 2.7 million people, but those are still the worst since ratings measuring Origin began.
What’s the lesson here? Probably that if you’re a New South Welshman planning to engage in theatrics to rev everyone up for an Origin that is struggling to make headlines, then you better be damn sure it’s going to work.