Thank goodness Clint Gutherson made it onto the field for four minutes during Wednesday’s State of Origin fixture; because if he didn’t get to play there may have been mutiny from Parramatta fans after missing the game against the Warriors because of Origin commitments.
Perhaps I exaggerate just a little, but I’m strongly of the view that it’s come to a point where we need to consider the rugby league calendar as a whole and how representative fixtures fit into the context of the season.
The current situation impacts the competition far too much and essentially means we have almost six weeks of footy where some teams hold on for dear life as they lose their best players.
Whilst we do get to see some of the next generation of players come through too, the quality of the footy we watch deteriorated significantly.
In terms of scheduling, we have regressed. Up until last year, at least there was a representative round where every team had a break and was not impacted during Origin. That does not take place anymore and some teams bear the brunt more than others.
But when thinking about what the season looks like, there’s an opportunity to take a big picture approach, think creatively and also think about where internationals fit in.
The ongoing dispute between the Rugby League Players Association and the NRL is still raging on.
This dispute has turned even uglier so I would be concerned by any approach which would pause the season in its current form during State of Origin for three weeks as this would extend the length of an already long season.
With the proposed expansion plans by the NRL, the season will just get longer and longer.
But given the NRL’s keenness to expand, could an option be to reduce the length of the season so each team plays each other once, with a three-week pause in the middle of the season during State of Origin.
Given the demand for content, there may even be an opportunity to start the NRLW a bit earlier and give that competition clear space to start off with a bang or you could put the focus on representative type fixtures, featuring internationals during this time too.
There is an argument that I’m being precious and that State of Origin or not, the cream rises to the top. There is truth to that.
The Penrith Panthers still sit on top of the NRL ladder despite missing so many players during the State of Origin period and having players out through injury.
But the Eels and the South Sydney Rabbitohs have faced challenges during this period and it may mean they miss out on a top-four spot. We know how important that top-four spot is if you have aspirations of winning a premiership so why should this period have such a big impact?
Back to reducing the length of the season so each team only plays each other once, this would get rid of another inequity in the draw and that’s the decision about which teams play each other twice.
As a Parramatta fan, I clearly have a vested interested in this because their draw has been tough on a number of levels.
They are the only team to face three consecutive teams coming off a bye. Arguably this could be seen as an advantage or a disadvantage (sometimes teams come back stronger after a rest and sometimes the team takes their foot off the gas), but given the number of rounds it’s unclear to me why this has happened at all.
You never know which teams are going to be top-eight contenders over the season and there are always surprises (like the Canberra Raiders and the New Zealand Warriors).
But there are teams that are consistently strong and Parramatta play those teams twice, likely because they aim up for these fixtures and it is a ratings bonanza.
This year Parramatta play the Panthers, Roosters, Storm, Cowboys and the Broncos twice. The one small mercy is that we only had to play South Sydney once.
Then during the State of Origin period, Parramatta was the only team who did not get a bye in the week their team would be missing Origin players. This is despite Parramatta being a team that is impacted by Origin (and in particular for Game III where two new players were elevated to the NSW squad for a dead rubber).
It’s not just the players that it impacts, but the fans and members as well. Parramatta’s first three home games consisted of two Thursday night fixtures and one Friday night fixture at 6pm.
This absolutely impacts the money that comes in at the gate and for members, especially those with children, it makes it extremely difficult to get out to the game.
This is not an excuse for Parramatta’s season. The team started poorly. There have been injuries. Dylan Brown’s suspension hasn’t helped either.
There is never going to be complete equality when it comes to the draw, but surely we can do a bit better than what we have seen in 2023.