If anyone wondered why the vast majority of AFL coaches detested the State of Origin concept they need look no further than rugby league’s SoO match at Suncorp Stadium last week when the reason was writ large, underlined and put up in lights.
Those 16 coaches would have shuddered in unison early in the second half when Melbourne Storm prop Antonio Kaufusi hobbled from the ground with a season-ending knee injury. What made it even harder to bear for Kaufusi, and the Storm, was that he was only drafted into the Queensland team as a last-minute replacement and the tackle that brought him undone was innocuous, at best.
So the familiar storyline played out once again: a key player for a club side fronts up for state rep duty and, bang, does a knee or shoulder and there goes his season, and perhaps the club’s chances at winning a premiership later in the year.
This was the AFL coaches’ worst fears realized. For them, the only prize in football is the one on offer in the last Saturday in September, the AFL premiership. State of Origin simply doesn’t cut the mustard. It is a very pale, sickly and anaemic version of the rugby league series and no amount of selling and spin by the AFL will convince them otherwise.
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To lose a key player in a meaningless series is just too much to contemplate, so in the past they have contrived all manner of bogus injuries to get their star players out of state rep duty. In the 1990s, North Melbourne coach Denis Pagan had the game’s best player Wayne Carey withdraw from SOO games for about half a dozen successive years with myriad spurious ”injuries”. Miraculously, Carey would recover in time to play for the Kangaroos the following week.
The debate is relevant in the light of the announcement this week by AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou that he wanted State of Origin back on the AFL calendar after an eight-year hiatus. He said he had the support of all the AFL captains and the majority of coaches in his push, although one would like to see the results of private polling among the coaches on that score.
I’d bet most shared the view of Sydney’s Paul Roos, who wrote in his Sydney newspaper column last Friday: ”State-of-origin football is a great concept for rugby league. I have to admit even as an AFL coach and former player, I’m hooked on league’s annual showcase series …. But I don’t want to see state-of-origin football return to AFL. We don’t need it. In the AFL, we have state-of-origin football every weekend.” He added he would only make his players available if the AFL managed to “elevate the game’s status to where it was”.
But Roos, as a Fitzroy stalwart, would have remembered in his playing days the damage that was done to Roys’ push for the finals in 1992 when, in a Victorian state-of-origin game against Western Australia at the MCG, WA’s John Worsfold delivered the most brutal roundhouse – in what was later defended as a spoiling attempt – that broke the cheekbone of Roos’ teammate Richard Osborne, putting him out of action for months. Ridiculously, the incident took place in the dying minutes of the match with the Vics up by 11 goals.
Ironically, Worsfold, as coach of West Coast, would have most to lose if the SOO concept is revived. Half of his team would surely be picked to represent WA, significantly increasing West Coast’s chances of losing one of them to injury.
The most recent SOO match was played at the MCG in 1999 when only 26,000 attended the Victoria-South Australia clash. That game was marred by dreadful weather, lack of club support and a high number of player withdrawals.
And that is the nub of the issue: rugby league players have always busted a boiler to represent their state in a fixture which is regarded every bit as important as the NRL premiership. Not so their brethren in the AFL.
This will be another of Demetriou’s great challenges as CEO. He has already set himself one this week with his stated desire to get all Victorian clubs back healthy and competitive, a masterstroke diversion from the long-running drugs debate. But getting everyone in the AFL fraternity behind the state-of-origin concept could prove every bit as difficult. Antonio Kaufusi will have seen to that.