Queenslanders are a lucky mob. We have surf, turf, reef and rum. Sun-seeking tourists still love the Big Pineapple and XXXX Brewery. And of course there’s that incredible dynasty under Mighty Mal of eight straight State of Origin Series victories. It’s united rugby league lovers from the Tweed to the Tip and you’d think if the big fella ever wanted to have another crack at politics, that lasted longer than 30 seconds (YouTube search ‘Mal Meninga political career’; you won’t be disappointed) Meninga would easily be elected as Premier and be pulling beers willy nilly at the Down Under Bar.
But not all is well in the land of milk and sugar cane. There is a very real and horrifying prospect that the strongest state in rugby league may fail to field a side in the NRL finals. Brisbane, Gold Coast and North Queensland have all had a tough campaign towards September with injuries, coaches placed in performance-based pressure cookers and the annual affliction of Origin fatigue. But excuses aside, if no Queensland team progresses beyond Round 26, it will be the first time in NRL history that the sunshine/smart state has failed to make the top eight. In a state used to winning, that’s a hard situation to understand.
A fortnight ago, the Titans, Broncos and Cowboys all remained in playoff contention, but now the situation has become more critical. A Queensland derby in Townsville decided the final eight destinies for the loser between North Queensland and Brisbane. Fans travelled hundreds of kilometres for a match that divided the state as evenly as Bob Katter’s idea to use the Tropic of Capricorn as a new border, separating North and South Queensland. The Broncos clung on for a two-point win that night in the north, starting a chain reaction that gave a glimmer of hope to Brisbane and saw the sacking of Cowboys coach Neil Henry.
Just one point separates the Broncos and Cowboys on the ladder in 12th and 13th respectively, with John Cartwright’s Titans sitting prettiest but facing the toughest draw over the last five rounds. They are clumped together in a bottleneck effect of eight teams trying to lock in four finals spots on the ladder. Seven points separate the Bulldogs, Sharks, Raiders, Knights, Titans, Warriors, Panthers and Broncos. None of those sides want to be desperate and dateless come September but have all been guilty of producing patches of brilliant football followed by poor spells that are punishing this time of year.
While the Warriors have an extremely winnable run towards to playoffs, the Broncos probably have the second-easiest draw and can leapfrog a few places with four home games at their Suncorp fortress in the final five rounds. Meanwhile it’s set to be a tough few weeks for the Gold Coast, with expert forecasters predicting only one win against the Cowboys in their final five outings. The Titans galvanised when they hit the top four, but have since slipped after losing four straight, hemorrhaging a massive 156 points before belting the Tigers at Skilled Park last weekend. But coach Cartwright’s men must now survive a difficult draw that pits them against serious premiership contenders the Sydney Roosters, Sea Eagles and Storm. Almost mission impossible, with most of their roster sitting in the casualty ward.
So with the Broncos battling to make that final eighth spot and about to embark on one of the biggest spending sprees in the club’s history to avoid finding themselves in a similar situation next year, the question beckons: if no Queensland team makes the playoff cut in 2013, does that jeopardise a push for a fourth licence? Central Queensland’s bid is considered by some as stronger than the cashed-up franchise in Perth – but if all three current sides are struggling to secure a finals appearance, would that negatively impact on Rockhampton’s hopes of getting a green light to enter the competition? The Maroons chose the regional rugby league stronghold to announce their team for Game Three. There are two things in Rockhampton; beef and league. It’s also the launching point from the mainland to the mythical XXXX Island. If any bid deserves serious consideration to broaden our competition it’s Central Queensland. I just hope the current climate doesn’t deter those who decide such matters. An entire state of league fanatics may be dependent upon it.