Rugby league’s State of Origin series between New South Wales and Queensland returns to Melbourne on Wednesday for a sixth time but its future in Victoria is being debated as never before.
The game comes as the Australian Rugby League Commission mulls over a $12.5 million bid – or $2.5m a year – from the Victorian government to secure a match every year for the next five years.
It will bring an end to the current deal, which has seen a game in Melbourne every three years since 2006; a schedule which yet might prove more palatable to the ARLC than annually as fans and combatants line up against giving Melbourne too much too soon.
Such is the allure of the code’s most explosive contest that New Zealand and the United States have also shown interest in securing matches; but not everyone is delighted that live Origin footy is in such demand.
Opposition, and not just from disenfranchised supporters, is building to the prospect of the competing states losing a home match every two years.
Both coaches in the current series, NSW’s Ricky Stuart and Mal Meninga of Queensland, have expressed opposition to a yearly Melbourne fixture, although happy to consider irregular games.
But Graham Lowe, a New Zealander who led Queensland to a series win in 1991 and a loss in 1992, said Origin should be “protected” by just being played in the two competing states.
“They’ve got to be very careful what they’re doing with it now,” Lowe told me in an interview for Rugby League Week.
“What the event actually means can be watered down for the want of just another television product. This is a unique Australian jewel in the crown. I don’t even think they should take it to other places, including Melbourne. They should just play it in Queensland and New South Wales and nowhere else.”
NZRL chief executive Jim Doyle said last week that his governing body would be putting a formal bid in front of the ARLC to host a game in Auckland in 2013, claiming, in an interview with the Courier-Mail, that “more people watch State of Origin in New Zealand than Super Rugby.”
That is irrelevant, says Lowe, who was the CEO of Manly until he resigned a year ago because of on-going health concerns.
“I know the NZ public would embrace it without any doubt but I think what Origin means doesn’t deserve that,” Lowe says. “It needs to be protected and if that means keeping it in that smaller market then so be it.”
Victorian Sports Minister Hugh Delahunty has offered to move games to the MCG, where Origin attracted more than 87,000 fans in 1994, to make it even more financially attractive to the ARLC.
Delahunty angered hardcore fans on Monday with his gaffe-ridden performance at a pre-match media conference in Melbourne, where he messed up the name of the NSW captain, called the event by the wrong name and even managed to get the teams wrong.
These errors were a red rag to the Maroons, especially their home town Courier-Mail newspaper which has been holding a petition to keep the Origin matches out of the clutches of Victoria. “Hugh Gibberer” and “Dunce of Origin” were two names bestowed on Delahunty in Tuesday’s online edition.
The paper also wheeled out Origin big gun, the now retired Darren Lockyer, who says Origin footy has no place outside of Queensland or NSW.
“While I think it’s important to grow the game in Victoria, in my opinion Origin belongs to the people who are most passionate about it, which are Queensland and NSW, and therefore should be played in Brisbane and Sydney only,” Lockyer wrote in a column.
Queensland Sport Minister Steve Dickson has already said his State Government will not pay more to host an event “we already own”. “Absolutely, we will not pay any more money (for future Origin matches). Morally I know I am on high ground.”
“The Australian Rugby League Commission is assessing the prospect of having Origin return to Melbourne in the future. Such is the stature of Origin that it is important to give rugby league fans in growing markets like Victoria the chance to experience it.
Of course this must also be balanced with the needs of our NSW and QLD fans to attend games in their state.
“Since 2005, our partnership with the VMEC and the Victorian Government has brought some truly memorable events in Australian sport to Melbourne and they have attracted sell-out crowds.
“It is worth noting that the second biggest ever crowd to attend an Origin match was in Melbourne in 1994 (87,161). The Victorian Government has also committed to grassroots development, and all of that is helping rugby league establish a small niche in an important market for us, a very competitive market.
“This year’s match is already close to being sold out and will be a good indicator of how the game is going in the Melbourne market. Whether Origin games in Melbourne will form part of the annual Origin schedule will be a decision for the ARLC in the coming months.”
Lowe believes it is disingenuous for officials to claim playing games outside Queensland and New South Wales was to help grow the code from the grassroots.
“The only reason they play those games in Melbourne is for financial reasons,” says Lowe. “And in New Zealand it wouldn’t make one iota of difference to the love of the game over here. The NRL is in your face all the time and the country is getting a good product already.”
Yet Delahunty continues to push the development line.
“If you want to grow the game of rugby league, you should take it outside NSW and Queensland and come to the sporting capital of Australia in Melbourne,” Delahunty says. “We are keen to attract an Origin game here every year. There is enormous interest.”
The concern of those closest to the contest is that a permanent move to Melbourne once a season, puts it on the level of a Formula One Grand Prix or Australian Tennis Open – exciting spectacles for “theatre goers”, rather than loyal fans.
Late last week I asked David Culbert, a marketing and sponsorship professional of Jump Media, if Melburnians were excited about the upcoming match.
“No, but they will be the day it’s on,” says Culbert. “Look, there’s no grand final week euphoria sweeping town, but there will be a buzz. And it’s great there’s so many people from Queensland and New South Wales coming and filling our hotel rooms and eating at our restaurants…
“I saw an ad in the paper that said you could see both Origin teams at Harvey Norman Springvale. I reckon they could walk down the main street of Springvale and go unnoticed. The good folk of Springvale would be able to point out Billy Slater and Cameron Smith, maybe, that would be about it … but there is no better place for a sporting event, so why not hold it here…”
The Melbourne media virtually ignored the event over the past week, certainly compared to the blanket coverage afforded the series in NSW and Queensland. Yet more than 50,000 will be in attendance on Wednesday, including a large number of interstate visitors.
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