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Opinion

How the AFL bringing back Origin could fix the league's biggest inequality - and why now is the perfect time

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5 days ago
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It’s that time of year when everything in rugby league circles becomes either blue or maroon for the State of Origin series.

Once a popular concept in the 1980s and 1990s, the AFL version also used to be a classic, that sadly finished up 25 years ago.

Serious attempts to revive it in a popular and meaningful way keep being spoken about but often fall on deaf ears in favour of club football, with team bosses viewing players as their investments. If held mid-year, players would have to give up club commitments and risk injuries in what effectively amount to exhibition games.

Now, however, could be the perfect time to revive the State-based representative game and give players something to strive towards throughout the year in addition to “All-Australian” selection, as part of a wider scheduling revamp.

The game is also approaching a serious fixturing problem in coming years with its expansion plans.

First, the addition of Tasmania; then, as most people expect, there will need to be another team added to make an even 20. There are only so many weeks in a year to fit in all the games in a fair way that balances out all the travelling each club, particularly those outside Victoria, will need to do.

Some commentators have already proposed a US-style conference system for the home and away season to cope with the high number of teams – but how would you split the teams up? Would it be a top 10 from the previous season on one side and the bottom 10 in the other? One for the Melbourne teams and the rest of Australia in the other? That last one hardly seems fair due to the travel.

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How do you guarantee the Cats-Hawks Easter Monday tradition, or the Collingwood-Essendon Anzac Day game, without manual manipulation to the draw?

But overall, I think the game needs a simple ‘less is more’ approach. Dare I say it, the home and away season is too long as it is. If we’re being honest, some fans are losing some of their interest halfway through, pending their club’s position on the ladder.

I realise that’s a controversial statement to some given how much we miss the footy during the summer months. But the reason I make that observation is that around this time every year, we start to put a tick next to potential finalists and put the pen through the cellar dwellers. It’s only ROUND 9!

Over the next month, there will start to be more meaningless and predictable games generally, if there have not been some already.

Last year, these bottom sides only won less than a handful of games after the Round 13 mark: North Melbourne (1), West Coast (2), Gold Coast (3), Hawthorn (4), Fremantle (4), Essendon (4), Geelong (4), Adelaide (5), Western Bulldogs (5) and Richmond (6).

On the flipside, the top five sides only lost a handful of games after Round 13: Carlton (1), Brisbane (3), Melbourne (3), Port Adelaide (4) and Collingwood (4).

There was also that infamous race to the bottom between North Melbourne and West Coast, and the Number 1 Draft Pick of Harley Reid. I’m not getting into specific tanking accusations, but if teams have more to gain from losing than winning in a general sense, there’s hardly any point in them being out there in a ‘competitive’ game.

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After a certain point in the season, games – with a few occasional exceptions – become predictable leading into finals. Or teams only play competitively for half a season – whether that is the front end or the back end, and scrape in or just hold onto their top-eight place.

There’s little question that there are so many games due to the broadcast contract, giving a certain amount of content each season. The problem is that it treats the games as events rather than sport, and disregards the quality of the product.

AFL Origin trophy

Nat Fyfe and Trent Cotchin ahead of the 2020 State of Origin Bushfire Relief match. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

At the end of the day, do we watch games to fill in time on a weekend, or do we watch them because we care about the result? I think I know the majority answer.

It would be great to see the season, once the 19th and 20th teams are added, shortened to 19 weeks at first. This would accommodate the introduction of those two new teams in the future, and ensure everyone plays each other once and only once.

In the case where home grounds are not shared, that can alternate each year, so if Sydney plays Collingwood at the SCG one year, it is at the MCG the next, and so on.

The sole Showdown could then be the prime fixture of Gather Round, and with each other club playing on neutral territory, it would leave everyone with exactly nine home and nine away games – perfectly balanced.

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This would bring forward the grand final almost a month and allow for that few weeks to open the calendar to explore some representative games in September – or indeed allow a mid-season window for such games similar to rugby league’s.

Hopefully, effort, attitude and interest from players can be sustained longer during the home and away season with fewer games – and the carrot of rep selection.

Tradition has to start somewhere, so why not try some new concepts along with Origin? That’s exactly what Racing NSW has done with The Everest; many doubted its success going head-to-head each year with the age-old Caulfield Cup, but it has already won over most racing purists.

One potential ‘out of the box’ possibility is getting two former coaches, say Leigh Matthews and Mick Malthouse, and getting them to do an old-fashioned schoolyard pick, selecting a team from across the AFL.

The whole process can be marketed and promoted by the broadcasters and if the prizes and incentives are big enough, it should be a competitive game – as long as it stays well clear of the AFLX gimmicks.

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There’s also the option of representative sides based on age, such as Under 21s, or like the NRL, an Indigenous All-Stars game. International Rules was fun – maybe that’s an option to explore again to open the door between cross-country swaps between Australia and Ireland.

Most importantly, clubs would need to support these players being rewarded and able to compete at representative level, like so many other sports.

I know there are people who immediately throw out the excuse, “if it’s not broken, leave it alone”; but unless you evolve, you become stale and stagnant.

Refreshing the fixture will not only make it fairer, but keep footy competitive and interesting for longer in the year.

West Coast Eagles
v
Melbourne Demons
6.25
1.13
PlayUp
AFL : Head To Head
Sun, 19 May 2024, 18:20
Western Bulldogs
v
Sydney Swans
2.55
1.52
PlayUp
AFL : Head To Head
Thu, 23 May 2024, 19:30
Fremantle Dockers
v
Collingwood Magpies
2.00
1.80
PlayUp
AFL : Head To Head
Fri, 24 May 2024, 20:10
* Odds Correct At Time Of Posting. Check PlayUp Website For Latest Odds
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