In what is increasingly becoming something of a winter of discontent for rugby league, State of Origin remains the game’s unchallenged success story.

Tonight’s second Origin game at Brisbane’s Lang Park (Suncorp Stadium) was a sell-out within hours of tickets going on sale – but it is the saturation media coverage in Sydney and Brisbane that is once again proving to be its greatest contribution to the game.

The NRL, and the game generally, face challenges on just about every side. Sydney clubs, long dependent on poker machine revenue, are struggling financially, crowd numbers – especially at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium — are a real concern, and even television ratings for the premiership could be better.

Add to that the continued push by the AFL into Western Sydney and the Gold Coast, and soccer’s growing profile, and rugby league needs all the coverage – not to mention dollars – that State of Origin gives it and more.

The lead-up to tonight’s game has been front page (and back page) in the biggest selling dailies in Sydney and Brisbane, and the news that Maroons captain, Darren Lockyer, was out of the game led the Channel Nine news in Brisbane on Sunday night.

But even success brings its problems. The absence of 34 of the game’s best players from last weekend’s premiership round resulted in heavy losses for the two teams most affected. The Melbourne Storm, with 10 players on Origin duty, went down to the Gold Coast Titans, and the Brisbane Broncos — with most of their backline in the two Origin teams — were easily accounted for by the St George Dragons.

Not for the first time, some of the game’s most respected coaches and officials are calling for Origin games to be played on three “stand alone” weekends to put an end to teams losing players for three premiership rounds. Even coaches who have benefited from their opponents being drained of key players have joined the chorus.

But for as long as Channel Nine is the only free to air broadcaster, Origin is not going to be shifted from Wednesday nights when it is a ratings winner for Nine. Stand alone weekend Origin games would rate well, but Nine would lose two live NRL fixtures for three weekends … unless the NRL extended the season and that won’t happen either.

When it comes to Origin, Nine holds firmly to the “when you are on a good thing stick to it” mantra. The push to extend prime time Origin coverage in the non-rugby league states lifted the ratings for Origin One last month closer to what the AFL gets for its live nationwide grand final coverage.

The ARL and the NRL are not going to shift ground either – despite growing pressure from the NRL clubs for a change to the format. Television and sponsorship revenues are linked to the current format for both the mid-week Origin series and 26 premiership rounds.

After close to three decades of Origin rugby league, the concept is as strong and as effective as ever – as a capacity crowd, saturation media coverage, and very high ratings, will prove once again tonight, regardless of which side wins.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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