For the first time in a long time — perhaps a quarter of a century — much of the build up to this year’s State of Origin series has focussed on the inability to get a capacity or near capacity crowd at tonight’s opening match at ANZ Stadium.

The ARL will need a good walk up crowd on the night to get anywhere near last year’s 75,000, which was still short of capacity. Ticket sales are reported to be in the region of 60,000, but anything less that 70,000 will raise further questions about the true state of the game of rugby league in Sydney.

Today, NRL CEO David Gallop conceded that some Sydney NRL clubs face extinction because of a an alarming drop in the profits of leagues clubs. He should have added declining crowds at matches. (It should be noted that the NRL runs the rugby league premiership but not the State of Origin.)

While the AFL can hardly have been happy with the turnout of around 6,000 at the premiership match on the Gold Coast last Saturday night, the NRL ought to be alarmed at the similar turnout at the St George-Illawarra Dragons v Melbourne Storm game at ANZ Stadium at the same time.

The NRL continues to release figures showing a 3% lift in crowds at matches in Sydney this year. But the “official” crowd numbers released for some matches at ANZ Stadium, and even the Sydney Football Stadium, leave many seasoned observers bemused at the very least. Perhaps some of the turnstiles count feet and not heads?

The ARL was happy with the crowd at the SCG Centenary test match the week before last, but if tonight’s numbers are well short of capacity the pressure will be on to play more games in Melbourne and Brisbane. Game two at Suncorp Stadium (Brisbane) was sold out within an hour of tickets going on sale some weeks ago.

But there is one aspect of tonight’s game that will please administrators. It will be shown “live” in four states – New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania (yes, Tasmania). And it will be shown on replay in primetime in South Australia and Western Australia. This will be a good ratings week for Nine – especially in Melbourne as the Melbourne Storm provide six of the Maroons starting thirteen, including the captain, Cameron Smith.

But there is one even more significant change this year. The Queensland Maroons are NOT favourites and yet cannot claim the usual underdog status. Yesterday one punter plonked a massive $700,000 on the Maroons to win, the biggest single wager in Origin history. The Maroons are at around $1.65, and the NSW Blues at $2.20.

But the Blues have at least one significant plus. Coach Craig Bellamy is widely regarded as the best coach in the NRL today and his tactical ability might help balance things out. The Maroons backline is outstanding – many already regard it as the best in origin history. If it turns out to be a contest between coaching tactics and sheer player skill it will be a contest worthy of the nationwide viewing audience it will attract.

The media run up to tonight has included the usual hype about “bringing back the biff” (that won’t happen) but there has been nothing in recent years to match the public anger — and that is not an exaggeration — at the decision by the Maroons selectors to ignore the standout player in the NRL premiership, the Gold Coast Titans Scott Prince.

The bookmaker who stands to lose a cool half a million on one bet will be hoping the Maroons selectors got it very wrong!