With Channel Nine showing tonight’s State of Origin match live in Melbourne, a city with a champion team but a rugby-shy public, it’s probably time to give fans both new and old a guide into rugby league’s showcase event.
So here beginneth the history lesson (long-time fans can skip down a few paragraphs). State of Origin began in 1980, as a direct consequence of New South Wales hammering Queensland year after year – with the NSW side including Queenslanders who were then playing in the NSWRL premiership.
Origin was introduced to even things up, and it has definitely done that. Since 1980, the NSW Blues have won 38 times, the Queensland Maroons have won 38 times, and there have been two draws, which makes this year’s event a tie-breaker of sorts.
Eligibility to play is not determined by where the player is born, but in which state they first registered as a player. In the now-dormant AFL state of origin, players play for their state of birth.
The lead-up to State of Origin has something in common with the lead up to federal election campaigns – a largely rhetorical battle for “underdog” status.
Queensland has manipulated itself into underdog status for years, but it has struggled to do so this week. The sports betting agencies have the Maroons as clear favourites, and most of the experts agree, especially if last year’s result is any indication — Queensland won the contest 2-1, losing the opening game by a point, winning the second by 26 and the third by two. It was their first series win since 2001.
It’s also fair to say that underdog status in these games is a furphy. For my money the first game of each series should be an even-money bet. The “home ground” advantage (this week it’s with the Maroons) has diminished in value in recent years. Last year’s decider was played on neutral territory at Melbourne’s Docklands stadium.
The one consistency in Origin rugby league is that the Maroons selectors tend to reward loyalty more than the Blues do. There is just one new player in the Maroons side this year – the Canberra Raiders Neville Costigan. Competition for places in the Blues line up is generally more intense because the Blues have over twice as many players to choose from. The most interesting choice in the Blues team this year is that of the Newcastle Knight’s Jarrod Mullen, who is just 20 years old, as half back.
If ever a player had the “pedigree” to make it to the top, it’s Mullen. He played in the Australia Under 15s, Australian Schoolboys and Junior Kangaroos before making the Knights first grade at the age of 17. Playing Origin is a natural progression, and he can expect his opponents to extend a ferocious welcome.
The other furphy about Origin these days is that games are “blood and guts” affairs. Yes, they are intense, but the NRL premiership is now too important for players to risk a suspension in an Origin game, and referees take a much tougher line on illegal play than they once did.
Although Melbourne misses out on a game this year, it raises an interesting question. If the NRL is going to convince the great bulk of Victorians that rugby is a sport worth watching (and thereby prise open that lucrative sporting market), is playing one Origin game a year in Melbourne a reasonable price to pay?
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