There can be no doubt that 2016 marks a watershed year in State of Origin. Most immediately, 2016 has seen the debut of a swathe of players – James Tedesco, Tyson Frizell, Josh Mansour and Adam Reynolds for the Blues, Milford and Hunt for the Emerging Maroons – who will go on to define the series over the next decades. At the same time, 2016 has seen the retirement of two of Origin’s most storied veterans in Corey Parker and Paul Gallen, with Billy Slater’s move to the sidelines possibly a permanent development as well. Add to that the arrival of Kevin Walters and the tail end of Laurie Daley’s tenure and there’s a sense that the series is starting to experience the kind of flux that occurs whenever one generation of New South Welshmen and Queenslanders starts to give way to the next. As so often occurs, the conversation has tended to shift around that moment, with the endless debate around the Blues’ halves pairing more or less displaced in the mainstream media by the quest for the next great fullback, culminating with Daley finally selecting both Tedesco and Matt Moylan for the squad in Game 3. Indeed, it is Tedesco himself who seems to personify this sense of change in the game, partly because his own career has come of age with the same tortuous and agonising bad luck that New South Wales have faced over the last couple of years. After Teddy’s performance in Game 3, surely only the return of Jarryd Hayne could induce Loz to take away his no. 1 jersey, and yet the rumblings about the former Eels’ movement back towards the NRL has been yet another ingredient in the sense that change is afoot on the Origin horizon.
Above and beyond these generational changes, however, a wider and more systemic change has started to creep over the course of the game. While Origin is special for a whole lot of reasons, one of its key characteristics is that it is exempt from the salary cap dramas that have plagued the NRL over the last decade, and which have come to a head so painfully this year in the case of the Eels. While other teams have paid the price for their salary cap breaches – at least those that have been caught – none have been so systematically humiliated and disappointed as Parramatta, whose ignominy in 2016 has seemed to generate a whole spate of other disasters, from Semi Radradra’s radio silence in Fiji to Corey Norman’s sex tape to Kieran Foran’s sudden and shocking departure from the NRL. Granted, not all of these other catastrophes have been directly linked to the salary cap in the same way as, say, the transfer of Nathan Peats, but the instability and insecurity at Parramatta have made them less containable and more visible than they might otherwise have been. Apparently, news articles about the Eels sell better than news articles about any other team – regardless of their club affiliation, NRL fans seem to feel that the health of the game is bound up in the health of the blue and gold, so it’s no surprise than the endless implosions at Pirtek have seemed to ripple out into the game as a whole. If Hayne was a saviour figure before he departed from America, his return to Parramatta at this stage would be nothing less than a religious event, and it’s amazing to imagine the cultic and charismatic rapture that would follow in his wake if he made the decision to take up the Steeden at Pirtek again.
For all those reasons, the tabloid media has tended to juxtapose Origin news with Parra news – speculations about Hayne are often the middle ground – for the simple fact that Origin is by definition outside the dramas of the salary cap. When players are chosen by chance – it’s utterly random whether you’re born in New South Wales or Queensland – rather than market value, a salary cap doesn’t make sense. Yet while that makes for a welcome reprieve from the endless financial scandals of the rest of the NRL, it does also result in the one event in the league that is entirely deregulated in the manner of the NFL, the NBA or the EPL. In effect, Origin has the potential to be the one series in the NRL that gives us a glimpse of how the code would look if one team had the ability to purchase all the players. I say “potential” because, up until this point in time, the chips have never fallen in favour of one side for any especially extended period. Sure, the Blues had a dominant streak in the early 00s, but it was quickly cancelled out by a new generation of Queenslanders. In fact, if you look back over the history of Origin since its inception in the early 1980s, the general pattern is that a team hits a winning streak for three or four years before the opposing team figures out how to overcome them, or a new generation comes around.
What makes the last decade of Origin so different, however, is that, for the first time, all the best players in the game have happened to be eligible (or supposedly eligible) for one side – Queensland. Up until this point, the chips fell in such a way that healthy competition was maintained, at least in a broad sense, but I think it’s become clear to most fans – and most Blues fans in particular – that the current Maroons squad are unbeatable in any kind of consistent or ongoing way. Over the last couple of years, in particular, it’s become clear that the Maroons are going to continue to reign until their core players retire. Never before in Origin history has a state fielded a side to match the combined power of Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Justin Hodges and Corey Parker, and while I think New South Wales are certainly capable of winning a series here and there – and should have, a few times – I don’t really believe that they’re capable of winning in any kind of sustained or consistent way. That’s not defeatism, or whinging, or disengagement – it’s just realism. After all, the current Kangaroos squad contains over two-thirds of the current Maroons squad, meaning that the Blues are pretty much going up against the national team three times a year while trying to blood and train new players in the process. For me, at least, that’s created a fairly stale football experience: do we really need to rock up every year to learn that Thurston, Cronk, Smith and Slater are still the best in the business?
Since Origin is the jewel in the crown of the NRL, however, it’s hard for critics and fans to acknowledge that this great Maroons generation – usually presented as the very pinnacle of Origin as an achievement and spectacle – also epitomises everything about the series that also works against entertainment and healthy competition. At the same time, it’s also hard to think of an alternative to Origin as it is currently organised – it is such a unique event in any football code, national or international – without fundamentally changing the spirit of the series in the first place. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the key responses to this growing sense of restlessness and frustration has been institutional and infrastructural efforts to change the competition from within. Nowhere is that clearer than in the efforts to shift the game away from this growing Queensland-New South Wales deadlock by literally transplanting it to “neutral” venues, with the record attendance at the MCG setting the stage for a scheme whereby one game every season will be played away from ANZ and Suncorp from 2018 onwards. Given that the second game of 2019 is already set for Perth – a city without a NRL team – and discussions are already underway for games to be set in Auckland – a city that usually tends to be on the peripheries of the Origin universe – it’s not hard to see a yearning here to escape the East Coast insularity of the series, even if that unique insularity and intensity is precisely what makes Origin so unique and popular at a national level. As a flagship event, Origin often anticipates future trends and provides a vision of how the NRL will look in five or ten years time, and it’s hard not to see this incorporation of Perth and possibly Auckland as the harbinger of a more genuinely international version of Origin than we currently enjoy. At the same time, it’s no coincidence that debates about the disruptions posed by Origin have escalated this year, nor that the NRL has also announced that the series will be partly transplanted to weekend games, since it’s hard to justify rearranging regular club footy simply to support Queensland’s supremacy: again, do we really need to include bye weeks just to prove that Smith, Thurston, Cronk and Slater are the best in the business?
While this growing disenchantment with Origin has produced massive changes at the national level, it’s also introduced a new kind of saltiness and sledginess into the game itself, especially in 2016. Part of the pleasure of Origin is the niggliness, while the series itself is so over-the-top that it’s hard to complain or criticise player conduct without being labelled whiny, whingy or precious. Nevertheless, I feel that the Queensland response to their winning streak has really reached a new level of entitlement, pomposity and absurdity over the next two seasons, producing a proportionately resentful Blues outfit that has resulted in what Corey Parker has described as an “all-time high” of bad blood between the two teams over the last six months. All of that culminated with two key acts of “disrespect” by New South Wales players in Game 3 this year: Andrew Fifita’s belated hit on Gavin Cooper and Paul Gallen’s decision to turn his back on Cameron Smith’s acceptance speech in order to thank the New South Wales fans at ANZ. At one level, I can see why Queenslanders were irritated by these actions: Fifita’s lunge at Cooper had a crazy intensity to it, while good sportsmanship did dictate that Gallen should have stayed to listen to Smith, even if he felt a momentary impulse to commune with the crowd for his last Origin round.
Nevertheless, for all that the Maroons used these two incidents as evidence of the Blues lack of sportsmanship, I think that there’s really more to the story here. As a New South Wales supporter, I don’t especially mind that Queensland win year after year – it’s disappointing, but that’s part of the game – and I’m not especially surprised, given that they have most of the best players in the game in their stable. What does irritate me is the way that, year after year, this is presented as some kind of enormous, incredible, unbelievable achievement – with each year that the Maroons take home the shield, and Queensland add another tally to their belts, we’re meant to be even more amazed and astounded at their sporting genius. Of course, I am amazed – they’re amazing players – but not really because they’ve beaten the Blues: after all, what would you expect when New South Wales are set up against the national team? Year after year, the Maroons are celebrated in the media each year as if Origin is a fair fight, and while Origin has never been an entirely fair fight – that’s part of the pleasure – the scales are now tipped so far in favour of one side that there’s something a bit galling about having to celebrate and venerate yet another Maroons victory.
For the Blues, that would be frustrating enough in itself if the Maroons were good winners. But, time and again, Queensland have taken their luck for granted. You’d think that a team that was so fortunate in its allocation of players would have a little bit of humility, but the way the Maroons conduct themselves in victory has become more and more entitled. Most abrasively, it’s erupted in increasingly overt brags and putdowns, such as Josh McGuire’s infamous tweet – “losers have meetings, winners have parties” – and Gavin Cooper’s bounce off the ball off Matty Moylan’s head after scoring a critical try in Game 3. While I love good Origin banter, both of these gestures – in their different ways – are just the worst kind of attitude, coming from two second-tier players who are simply fortunate enough to be housed in arguably the best Australian Rugby League team in history. For me, Fifita’s brainsnap can’t be understood outside of that attitude, especially because McGuire had sealed the deal with a nasty hair pull earlier in the game. Imagine if a collection of gridiron, basketball or soccer players had to take on the majority of their national team every year for ten years, and then had to remain calm for being sledged for not winning? That’s pretty much the situation here, and I’m amazed that the resentments and frustrations have taken so long to come to the surface.
Yet it’s not just the outliers or young guns who are responsible for this Maroons entitlement. One of the biggest concerns on the back of this year’s Origin clash is how the Kangaroos are going to achieve unity when they come together for Four Nations at the end of year. To some extent, there’s a fairly simple answer to that – the Kangaroos pretty much are the Maroons, especially now that Mal Meninga is coaching the national team. Yet that equation of the Maroons and the Kangaroos is precisely the point, and something that the Maroons seem to acknowledge as well – after all, they infamously sung the Maroons victory song after the 2012 test victory over the Kiwis, as if to collapse it into their wins over the Blues during the previous decade. For all intents and purposes, then, it seems as if many of the Maroons simply regard themselves as the national team – or the core of the national team – and yet they also expect to get all the applause of a victory lap every year for beating what amounts to the secondary national team, the leftover national team. Far from being qualified to call the Blues bad sports, then, the Maroons are uniquely entitled when it comes their winning streak – even if it isn’t always visible, and even or especially when they are represented by their most diplomatic and gentlemanlike spokesmen in Thurston and Smith.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the controversy surrounding Gallen’s departure from the field before Smith had finished his victory speech this year. While protocol dictated Gal stayed, I more than understood why he left – by this stage, the Maroons record has become a bit of a meaningless victory lap, and if I were New South Wales captain I’d also probably feel like acknowledging the fans, instead of listening to Smith put in yet another diplomatic and humble speech. Smith is greatly regarded as one of the NRL’s best emblems, yet I’ve never found that his behaviour on the field necessarily reflects this gentleman persona, nor that the way he takes ownership of the wins really acknowledges the very natural advantage that Queensland necessarily have. While Thurston is one of my very favourite players, and I’ve always liked his Origin sledges – his putdown of Mitchell Pearce was amazing – I thought this his niggling of Gallen during this final game – if the “Fuck your Blues” rumours are true – was one of his most disappointing moments, especially in the light of his moralistic observation that Gal’s departure from the field “really typifies what the team is all about.” Combined with his stony-faced response to Gal on The Footy Show and his pointed comment that the Maroons have “a really good winning culture,” I found this a really disappointing episode from one of my favourite players: you’d think if you’d been taking the plaudits for beating the Blues with the national team for a decade that you’d have enough humility and insight to cease from dissing the entire team when their captain retires, as well as enough sportsmanship to prevent you from simply attribute your winning streak to a “winning culture.”
At the end of the day, footy is footy, and Thurston and Smith are legends of the game no matter my opinion of their conduct in this case. Yet what makes me feel so strongly is the depth of hostility reserved for Gallen, with James Hooper – a professional journalist – reducing him to a crybaby and suggesting that, in contrast to Smith and Thurston’s roles as “statesmen” and “leaders,” Gal will “primarily be remembered as a bad sport.” Even with Gal’s spotty history, that’s a really harsh thing to say about a player, and I’d like to see how gentlemanlike or statesmanlike any of the Maroons icons would be if they’d had to put up with the increasingly lopsided state of Origin over the last half-decade in particular. In a bizarre final twist, it feels as if Gallen has been blamed for the decline of Origin, just as the Blues have been repeatedly blamed for not finding the magic spark that will allow them to consistently wallop the national team. While I’m fine with Queensland winning – there’s nothing like watching the Maroons when they’re on – that lack of a fair fight, and the increasing tendency to blame New South Wales for it, has started to turn me away from the series a bit, at least for the moment. And it may be that Gallen’s worst crime was that he didn’t mean to be rude, contemptuous or salty with Smith – instead, like so many of us, he was probably just indifferent or disinterested in the Maroons win. We all know they’re the best, we all know they’re pretty much the Kangaroos, we all know that their winning streak is unlikely to be broken until their core retire – all that we ask, as New South Wales supporters, is that they make more of an effort arrive at the end of their dynasty as good winners.