A new Origin debate emerges

Thirty-two years ago, State Of Origin was invented as a reaction against economic migration. Today, economic migration is getting even.

The debate over the weekend about who Sam Kasiano should play for and the confusion of Gold Coast’s South Australian product, Brenton Lawrence, over what it all means for him should prove to us all that as an invention, if not as a cashcow, Origin is now obsolete.

In the 1970s, more and more Queenslanders drifted south of the border to play rugby league because the teams there were backed by licensed clubs, in turn powered by something banned in Brisbane – poker machines.

These players moved for the same reason the families of James Tamou and Kasiano probably came to Australia: “a better life” or, more bluntly, cash.

As a result, games between state teams picked on residential grounds were a complete mismatch. They were reduced – by Sydney’s poker machines and more robust economy – to being played on a Tuesday night at Leichhardt Oval with squads assembling the day before.

Senator Ron McAuliffe and ARL patriarch Ken Arthurson coined Origin as an artificial construct against the natural forces at work in this migration. It was specifically aimed at making Queensland competitive by sending players back across the border a few times a year – and achieved its aim spectacularly.

Market forces, like rivers, may take decades or centuries to find their courses again but eventually the diversions – and the animals that build them – wither and die.

The first crack in the dam wall appeared with the emergence of the Brisbane Broncos. Players based in Queensland were representing NSW – something the forefathers of Origin could never have forecast.

Origin was not built for this. At the time of Origin’s – er – origins, Australian-based players rarely represented New Zealand. The Sorensen brothers, Dane and Kurt, were refused releases by Cronulla to play Tests around the same time.

Origin was not built for having a team in Melbourne that sent its NSW recruits to Queensland to play for feeder teams at exactly the age when their state of eligibility was in its infancy. In 1980, no one could imagine teenagers living in Melbourne and flying to Brisbane for a game of suburban football.

In 1980, the level of economic migration to Australia from the Pacific was not what it is today. Nothing like it.

My point is this: Origin has grown into so much of a financial monster that it is now doing the exact thing it was invented to prevent: picking players for a state who are not actually from there.

And it is doing so by using the exact same lure it was intended to nullify – cash.

While NZRL operations manager Tony Kemp rattled the sabre over Kasiano in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Kiwis chief executive Jim Doyle was more circumspect on the ABC yesterday.

“New Zealand has been the recipient, from a positive perspective, much more so than Australia,” he said.

“We’ve got people like Josh Hoffman, Gerard Beale, Nathan Fien, Jason Nightingale, numerous others, whose history revolves around New Zealand but they weren’t born here.

“There’re a lot of kids over there who were born over here but whose parents left and took them with them when they were young.

“A lot them have grown up more as a New South Welshman or a Queenslander than they have as a Kiwi.

“There is, on the other side, some players who play for the Kiwis at the moment who were actually born in Australia but because of their parents, have grown up more as Kiwis and always wanted to play for the Kiwis.”

The other, less publicised, consequence of Origin’s scorched-earth policy is that it is not only eating up those who would have played for other territories in the past but it is already preventing other important areas for the sport from having any future.

Young Tonumaipea is likely to be the first Victorian-produced Melbourne Storm first grader. But he has already represented NSW at Under 20s level by virtue of the Storm fielding junior rep teams north of the Murray and is more or less committed to the Blues.

Lawrence, in Adelaide as part of a military family, technically a South Australian product and the scorer of an eye-catching Titans try yesterday, wants to play for Queensland. “I go for Queensland,” he said, by way of explanation.

“Because I was born in Mackay, I’ve always supported Queensland.

“I don’t know how it works. We joked about it the other day. With Origin coming up, the boys were talking about it. I was saying ‘I’m from South Australia. Where does that leave me?’”

Many rugby league fans would like to think that in 50 or even 100 years, there would be state teams from Western Australia or Victoria full of pros. It seems a natural result of national expansion.

But by gobbling up talent from the rest of the country right now, NSW and Queensland are treading on those tiny chutes of development grass before they even emerge from the dirt.

So, if Origin was an old photocopier or clunky mobile phone, it would be in landfill by now. But it happens to be a very profitable anachronism.

If the reasons for its invention are gone, then so are the impediments to change.

Tonie Carroll, Craig Smith, Lote Tuqiri, Adrian Lam, Aquila Uate and Brad Thorn have put paid to the idea that players who represent other countries can’t play Origin. Sorry, they already have.

With another Queensland team likely to be admitted to the NRL soon, the original reasons for Origin’s birth will become even more remote, antiquated and lost in the mists.

It’s time to wipe the slate clean and configure Origin for a world in which, as Jim Doyle describes it, players loyalties are confused not just by their place of birth, domicile and football club but by how their parents raise them and and how they feel.

What’s that answer? That’s for the commission to decide. But for argument’s sake: what if we went the full circle and ended up back where we started – with residency as the prime selection criteria?

Pick a NSW team, including all nationalities, who live in NSW and a Queensland team the same way. OK, allow the Melbourne stars to stay in their current State colours (but allow the next generation to wear the Big V).

Got the teams written out? Pretty good game, eh?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect those of the NRL.

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