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Opinion

Origin stuffs up the NRL, again

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6th June, 2021
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The first NRL split round for the year was a complete bludger. Four borderline unwatchable games, with three blowouts and one ‘close’ one decided by a converted try but of terrible quality overall.

If we thought blowouts and poor quality games were bad enough already in 2021, we’ve just got a taste of the impact of this year’s State of Origin series.

Fans reacted to the weekend’s results the way they normally would based on how their teams have performed so far. Some Panthers fans in particular reacted pretty poorly to their 20-point loss to the Wests Tigers.

A Panthers fan shows his frustration

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

But it’s too harsh to pot the players who are out there during the Origin period, who are coming up from second grade competitions but still are expected to maintain the level of the incumbent, and build immediate combinations with established players who aren’t in Origin camp.

It’s always been weird how the NRL views almost everything through the Origin lens. Young players who show promise are pigeonholed as either being ready for Origin or not, rather than judged on their ability to carry a team to a premiership.

When Melbourne Storm star pair Harry Grant and Cameron Munster were injured in early May, the initial diagnoses was reported almost entirely against their ability to be fit enough for Origin Game 1 (they are).

Newcastle’s fullback Kalyn Ponga has a groin injury, with which he’s missed a bit of time. He still went to Queensland’s camp, but was sent home not long afterwards after being ruled out.

Ponga is now out for an extended period, possibly including even the second Origin. His club’s coach Adam O’Brien has his own problems, with an underperforming club in free fall and his reputation and perhaps even his job on the line. But he’s now without Ponga for an extended period of time.

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“In hindsight his best chance for Game 2 would have been to stay here and keep working with the group that works with him,” O’Brien said about Ponga on Sunday.

Again, the commentary around this isn’t that Ponga will miss critical, season-defining club games, it’s about his fitness to be able to play Origin.

Knights fans must be ecstatic that after missing all this time, Ponga will come out of a long injury break straight into the Origin cauldron.

Kalyn Ponga of the Newcastle Knights scores a try

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

We’re constantly told State of Origin is the pinnacle of the game, which is undeniable.

But should it be? Should clubs be handing over their best players to get bashed up, back up days later then disappear again as the three-game series plays out?

For all the unforgettable moments he provided us, Johnathan Thurston was never quite the same after getting a bad shoulder injury during Origin.

Are North Queensland fans just supposed to be proud he represented Queensland, or are they entitled to be filthy about the lost opportunities for the team they pay to watch? Can you think both thoughts at the same time? Sure you can.

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Is it truly a contest of the best of the best if there’s no players from Tonga, Samoa, England, New Zealand and other countries that aren’t in Queensland or New South Wales? And yes, I’m ignoring fuzzy selection practices.

Surely to grow the game and get buy-in from across the board it’s the international side that needs to get a bump?

Well, no.

As is usually the case, the answer is money. State of Origin is a colossus that brings advertising dollars, sponsorships and opportunities to cash in that aren’t there for the regular season. It gives Channel Nine monster midweek prime time ratings, which is what pushes rugby league into the top tier when it’s end-of-year-review time.

Maroons celebrate a try by Harry Grant during game three of the State of Origin series

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

When the next lot of negotiations kick off for the game, it might be a smart idea to separate the Origin series from the regular season to make a little extra cash.

That would likely drive down what broadcasters are willing to pay for a non-Origin package, which ironically would prove that Origin is too big for the regular NRL season.

The mythical ‘casual fan’ is an Origin regular. They love to watch, then they then go away but don’t take with them up a new love for the game of rugby league. The consistently massive ratings for State of Origin are yet to translate into more eyes on the club game.

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People consume Origin games, then they’re gone until the grand final. Fans stick around, but endure six weeks of a vastly inferior NRL competition.

I know nothing’s going to change, because this is rugby league and there’s far too much money at stake to change things now. It’s not clear what actually could change that would help the regular season. Origin selection limits from each team? Three Origin weekend byes? Shut down the NRL for a month and play Origin standalone?

Disband Origin altogether and play an international tournament?

I don’t want Origin to go away or get lessened. I love watching the series while praying no one gets injured. I’ll be a keen watcher this Wednesday and if Melbourne wasn’t under lock and key, I’d be there.

But it’s just so strange a competition is so happy to disrupt itself to such a massive extent for a significant portion of the season for a three-game series between two states.

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And it’s okay to have those two thoughts at the same time.

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