Rugby league officialdom must surely be counting the days until the 2009 State of Origin series, with last night’s 2008 decider confirming Origin’s premier place in the rugby league calendar in the areas where it really counts — ratings, crowds, and saturation media coverage.
The problems thrown up by the premiership season — declining crowds, clubs in dire financial straits and the drain of players to the UK Super League — have been put aside during yet another successful Origin series, won by the Queensland for the third year running with last night’s 16-10 victory over the NSW Blues.
It was a game that had everything — some wonderful skills by young stars, a bit of relatively harmless old fashioned biff, and a close contest from go to whoa. And to rub salt into the Blues wounds, the three Maroons tries were scored by players from the Melbourne Storm club, coached by the Blues coach, Craig Bellamy.
The Maroons victory was even more impressive thanks to the cruel reality of body contact sport. The Maroons’ halfback, Scott Prince, left the field after just 15 minutes with a broken arm. His season is almost certainly finished, and with it that of the Gold Coast Titans. But he was replaced by the Storm’s Billy Slater, who promptly played a starring role and scored the winning try.
The difference between the two teams this year was clearly on show last night. Man for man there is not much between the teams, but the Maroons have a couple of young stars who, when they excel, make all the difference. Simply, Jonathan Thurston and Israel Folau were too good last night. The worrying news for the Blues is that Jonathan Thurston is 25, while Folau is just 19. Even the Maroons’ captain, Cameron Smith, is just 25.
One of the biggest assets Origin has for rugby league is that it not only gives the game saturation coverage in New South Wales and Queensland, it gives it exposure in the non-League states. Last night’s match was shown live in Victoria and Tasmania, and on delay in SA and WA. But there is another measure of its success. If the AFL could re-introduce an Origin concept that would be just as successful it would do so tomorrow.
The irony is that the founders of State of Origin, the then QRL Chairman, Ron McAuliffe, and NSWRL Chairman, Kevin Humphreys, were originally told the concept was worth trying by an equally powerful, and far-sighted administrator, the then VFL Chairman, Dr Alan Aylett! The rugby league community will forever be indebted to him!
Rugby league has its problems, problems that need to be addressed robustly. Last night proved — if it was necessary to do so — that State of Origin in not among them.