Rugby league desperately needs a high rating State of Origin series to save its free-to-air TV rights and, consistent with the Peter V’landys regime of “rules on the run”, why not allow players suspended in NRL matches over the next six weeks to be eligible for Origin?
Too many top players risk joining the Roosters Victor Radley as ineligible for Origin via suspension or unavailable via injury as a result of an NRL competition where rule changes promoting increased speed have led to fatigue and consequent poor timing in tackles.
The high-tackle crackdown could cruel the State of Origin series as a spectacle.Credit:NRL Photos
The NRL’s free-to-air TV rights expire at the end of the 2022 season and most deals are concluded a year early.
With long term free-to-air rights holder, Nine Entertainment, now telecasting rugby union and Channel Ten recently acquiring the A-League and W-League, ARLC chair V’landys needs a successful Origin series to excite rival networks.
But it’s not only injuries and suspensions which have robbed Origin of elite players.
The number of players ineligible for the two state contest has been rising for years, as Pacifica players elect to play for their country of origin.
Taking a hit … the Origin series has lost its lustre on TV in recent years.Credit:Getty Images
So, as the international game becomes more competitive, the state game can no longer boast being “the best against the best”.
Two years ago, the percentage of NRL players eligible to represent the Maroons was 21 per cent and the Blues 36 per cent, with 43 per cent unavailable because they identified with England, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa or another Pacific country.
Queensland, with only three NRL teams, is most affected and QRL chair Bruce Hatcher points out that the Broncos, who once supplied the bulk of Maroons, are now “signing players eligible for the Blues”.
Last year, the Maroons won the series off the back of being labelled “the worst Queensland team ever” and, as Dr Fujak points out in an email, “the debuts of players like Dunamis Liu, Edrick and Brenko Lee and Corey Allan last year, illustrates that Origin squads are starting to draw on more sub-pinnacle players than in the past”.
While state rivalry is the fundamental attraction of Origin, Dr Fujak argues “the perception of Origin being the pinnacle has played its part in drawing huge audiences in the past”.
“Origin represents one of the few competitive advantages NRL has over AFL and suspending players is a self-inflicted own goal. I would argue that Origin no longer has the luxury of depth to be suspending eligible players.”
One NRL coach agreed, saying, “When I saw the mass NRL suspensions, the first thing I thought of was ‘how will this affect Origin?’”
But, like others, he rejects any idea of the dispensation being extended to the NRL finals where a player could commit mayhem in the preliminary final, confident he can’t be ruled out of the grand final.
Other coaches contacted by the Herald are insistent Origin can’t be refereed the same as recent NRL matches. Text messages from former players who turned off their TV sets in the “crackdown round” say they will do the same if the usually fast-paced, low-scoring Origin is impacted by sin bins and six agains.
Global Media and Sport’s Colin Smith argues the choice of Townsville as the location of Wednesday’s first Origin match also sends a message to the public that the NRL no longer views the three-game state contest as its jewel.
“Origin draws between eight and nine million viewers when played mid season at Homebush or Suncorp Stadium and to take it to a regional city in exchange for money sends a message the NRL are devaluing the product,” he said.
As Dr Fujak says, “The NRL really needs a good Origin audience to reverse a slide that is poorly timed into their next FTA rights deal negotiation”.
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