People often forget that Origin is, at its heart, just another game of rugby league. It’s 13 players, four subs, coaches and a ref, just like everything else.
Except, also, it’s not. The referees certainly don’t think so, and while it is the same game over 80 minutes, it isn’t the same competition over 27 rounds. It’s about being good in the here and now, and damn the rest.
Michael Maguire, announced officially as the Blues coach ahead of the 2023 series, would do well to keep that dichotomy front and centre in his mind, because it is has not always been something that the NSWRL has emphasised.
The reign of Brad Fittler was characterised, in its latter stages, by how much people liked him as bloke – understandable, given both his career, his later charity work and, y’know, being a good bloke – caveated with the fairly obvious fact that he wasn’t that effective as a rugby league coach.
If Origin was just about vibes and people management, NSW would have won, but it’s not, and thus when they picked the wrong squad, messed up their subs and were unable to react to Queensland’s tactical ploys, they lost.
For all the bluster about getting Origin’ and whether anybody ‘wanted it more’, the team that wins tends to be the one that picks the best team, has the best tactics and then executes them on the night. Spoiler alert: they all ‘want it’, whatever that means.
The difference with Origin, really, is that it’s an all-star game, so there are rarely the weak links that are present in other matches, which is counterbalanced by the fact that there are only three games and thus basically no opportunity to build cohesion or sophisticated game plans.
Here’s a thought experiment to understand that dichotomy.
If you played Queensland against the 2023 Penrith Panthers in March, the Maroons would win by a lot based on their talent advantage – but if you played it in September, when club sides are at their most battle-hardened, the Panthers would be a red hot chance.
When considering Maguire, it’s worth keeping this in mind. As a club coach, his star has waned dramatically from Souths’ Grand Final win in 2014 onwards.
His record prior to winning a comp with the Bunnies, taken across the Super League with Wigan and his three season in the NRL, was 73%, and since, across this three subsequent years at Redfern and three and a half years at the Tigers, is 39%.
Win percentages aren’t everything, but those are some pretty stark numbers. What is noticeable about Maguire is that his coaching style hasn’t really changed, but everything has changed around him.
He’s a Proper Rugby League Man at a time when that kind of coach, all shouting and discipline, has gone out of style completely.
Ivan Cleary and Trent Robinson, perhaps the dominant coaches since 2014, aren’t shouters. Andrew Webster, Jason Demetriou and Craig Fitzgibbon aren’t either.
It’s not to say that the spray has gone out of the game completely, at least not while Bellyache still holds the proverbial clipboard, but the methods have long since moved on.
This generation of players doesn’t respond to it, and this has been noted across all sports, not just rugby league.
Similarly, there is a weight of scholarship out there that suggests that it particularly doesn’t work with Pacific people, who are now the majority in dressing rooms – much more so than even in 2014, when Souths won the comp with just four Pasifika players from their 17.
Where that get-up-and-go still matters, however, is in rep footy. When you can’t instil philosophy due to the short lead up time, then inspiration is all that you have.
Moreover, if a key skill of a coach is motivational, then there’s only so many times that you can go to the well across a 10-month long season. In Origin, it’s not a problem.
Madge was limited by his poor Tigers cattle and the closing of a generation post-2014, but his own action limited performances too. Players got sick of the constant pressure and intensity.
When you’re only picking elite athletes, you’re already dealing with the best of the best, and you’re only dealing with them for six weeks tops, and you’re dealing with them at a time when they are at their peak of motivation to play for you. They’re already up, you just have to get them up further.
Maguire has demonstrated his abilities as a rep coach repeatedly since assuming the Kiwis role in 2018.
His side have twice beaten Australia (including the recent demolition in Hamilton) and should have beaten them a third time, in the semi of last year’s World Cup, when they were the better side but mightily unlucky.
Rep footy is a totally different animal to the NRL.
Maguire will bring some parts from clubland that will help – competently making substitutes, for example – but he should think hard on the varying demands of Origin before picking his side.
His comments on favouring form over incumbency is a positive start. Origin is all about the best team now, for these next three games, and not about who was good a year ago.
If he wants a cautionary tale, then the Kangaroos side that he just defeated is a good one, because plenty of those blokes were picked on the value of their World Cup, not the NRL season in between.
The Blues, too, would do well to remember that he is not picking an all-NSW select, rather a team to win on a Wednesday night.
The obsession of the previous regime with utility players, who were picked without a clear idea of how they would be used, was a good example of this. Madge should begin with an interchange plan and work backwards from there, especially with his middle.
His decision to include Leo Thompson in the Kiwis team, for example, is positive.
He knew he had a man in form on the back of the Knights strong finish to the year, but also that he had a gap for a short minute, high impact forward and, despite the wealth of talent available to New Zealand chose a slightly less heralded player, but one who perfectly fit the style of middle he didn’t have.
With a backroom staff that includes Matt King, surely the next of the rank from the Robinson production line, and a wily veteran in John Cartwright, it seems like he has picked guys to sit in the box who can add to the conversation and add insight.
Madge won’t rush into any quick decisions, but there will be several lingering questions to be answered in the first 10 weeks of the year before he names a squad.
James Tedesco’s position as captain and automatic pick at fullback will surely be one of them, especially if his form decline from 2023 continues, or if either Tom Trbojevic or Latrell Mitchell starts the season well.
Fittler’s obsession with NSW becoming Penrith-lite will be gone, and that brings in a raft of other questions around personnel and positions. Cameron Murray and Isaah Yeo are both exceptional locks, but neither were best utilised under the previous regime.
The five eighth could be anyone, the hooker situation hasn’t been cleared up and, as mention, there are at least three elite fullbacks, if not more.
These are good questions to have, and Madge will be under pressure from the off to find the answers. If he approaches Origin like the unique rugby league proposition it is, he might well find some of them.