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The potential shift in the traditional heartland of the game, South Sydney and Canterbury-Bankstown's 'sliding doors' moment, and a different kind of Origin debate.

Clubs far and wide

Last week this column mentioned the growing power of New Zealand rugby league and hinted at a potential shift in the traditional heartland of the game. A cursory glance at the NRL ladder shows two Queensland teams, Melbourne, Sydney, Illawarra, Canberra and New Zealand represented at the top of the ladder. This is mirrored in the Holden National Youth Cup.  This is a great thing for the game. As the NRL starts to build towards the next media rights deal, speculation continues to simmer in the ongoing narrative of expansion. It is good to see the game doing well across its outposts, with pretty much every region featured in the Top 8. 

Add this to the successful representative weekend, where we saw some amazing games of rugby league played by so-called 'minnow' nations. The game is definitely in a strong position.

Could we see an all-Queensland double on grand final day? 

How good are the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys going at the moment? They put on an absolute blockbuster on Friday night and sparked visions of what would be a historic all-Queensland NRL Grand Final. What you might not know is that the Queensland clubs are in the top four in both the NRL and Holden Cup. It's a long way away, but if they keep it up, we could see Cowboys v Broncos twice on grand final day. 

Is Origin still the pinnacle?

State of Origin is a vehicle to the masses; it has long been rugby league's crowning jewel, the biggest stage with the biggest audience. It is the platform with which rugby league can grow to new markets, attract new fans and increase revenue. Last year's Origin II was the most watched event of 2014 with a massive 4,118,000 viewers, while Origin I was the second-highest rating show of the year.

Is it still the best of the best? No. But it is still without doubt Australia's fiercest rivalry. With the development of international rugby league in the last few years, some of the world's best players won't be involved in the annual series. New Zealand is now the undisputed No.1 ranked side in the world, having beaten Australia three times in a row. 

As the game continues to grow and expand in the coming decades, it will become more routine for the game's best players to come from regions outside its traditional heartlands of New South Wales and Queensland. In fact, it won't be uncommon for the best players to come from outside Australia. In reality, they already are. We'll see a lot more Shaun Johnson's, James Graham's and Jesse Browmich's in the coming years. 

This is not a bad thing for rugby league and it in no way diminishes the appeal or spectacle of State of Origin. This year's series is shaping to be another cracking sporting contest.




'Sliding doors' moment

There is a theory going around the offices that the Easter Friday blockbuster between the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs was a 'sliding doors' moment for the NRL season. Both teams were in the top four heading into the clash. With the game hanging in the balance, one play would change the course of the season dramatically for both clubs. The aftermath of the infamous field goal attempt was South Sydney halfback Adam Reynolds being injured for four weeks and the Bulldogs' inspirational leader James Graham being suspended for the same stretch of time for the attempted charge-down gone wrong on the Rabbitohs playmaker and subsequent fallout. 

The Bulldogs have gone 1-4 since the epic encounter, dropping from 4th to 14th, while the Rabbitohs have also gone 1-4  to drop from 1st to 7th. A hamstring injury to fullback Brett Morris picked up in the dying seconds of the clash has also impacted heavily on Des Hasler's men. 

There is no question how influential both players are to their respective teams and their absence has been felt equally by both clubs. How the start of the season may have been different for both clubs if not for those ill-fated couple of seconds. 

Raiders need to win at home

The Canberra Raiders have surprised many this year to sit sixth on the NRL ladder, playing a bold and entertaining brand of footy. They have recruited well with some big and experienced forwards and some exciting youngsters proving a great mix for coach Ricky Stuart. But they'll know that they need to start winning at home. The Raiders are the only side in the top 8 who have lost more games at home then they have won with a 1-3 record in Canberra this season. Only the Gold Coast has a worse record on their home track (1-4) and the Titans are currently in 13th. 

Cowboys' best 13

To celebrate their 20th year in the NRL, the North Queensland Cowboys named their best ever XIII in what is sure to cause plenty of debate. Well done to all the players who made the team. It is a pretty special side.

1. Matt Bowen
2. Ty Williams
3. Matt Sing
4. Brent Tate
5. Paul Bowman
6. Johnathan Thurston
7. Nathan Fien
8. Matthew Scott
9. Paul Rauhihi
10. Aaron Payne
11. Luke O’Donnell
12. Gavin Cooper
13. Travis Norton

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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