With all three Queensland teams in the Telstra Premiership Finals Series for the first time and the Maroons still basking in their 10th Origin series win in the past 11 years former Queensland great Brent Tate believes the power base of rugby league has shifted north across the border.
Defending premiers North Queensland continue their defence when they take on minor premiers the Storm in Melbourne on Saturday night while south-east Queensland rivals Brisbane and Gold Coast go head-to-head in a do-or-die blockbuster at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
The opening weekend of the finals marks the first time that the three Queensland teams have qualified for finals football in the same season with the prospect of the winner of the Broncos-Titans clash facing the Cowboys in Week Two in another all-Queensland derby.
New South Wales – and Sydney in particular – has always been considered the spiritual home of the game in Australia since its birth in 1908 but Tate has seen the strength of the game at all levels in Queensland grow to the point where it can genuinely challenge for the crown of undisputed rugby league heartland.
"I've done a lot of travelling around regional Queensland lately and I've noticed just how huge rugby league is in these areas and in the outback," Tate says in the Finals Week 1 issue of Big League.
"But even in the cities, when you talk to juniors in places like Redcliffe and Townsville, everyone loves their footy. The game is thriving.
"Mums and dads want their kids to play rugby league and the kids are excited to be playing and supporting the game. When junior participation is strong, you can see the benefits all the way up to the NRL level.
"This success reaffirms how the location of the heartland of rugby league has slowly shifted over the past couple of years.
"It's traditionally been in New South Wales, but looking at crowd figures and results on the field, there's a strong argument Queensland has staked a claim for the title.
"With rugby league thriving at grassroots and the Maroons winning 10 from the past 11 State of Origin series, Queensland is in a great position.
"I think all three NRL teams can continue their impressive form next year and we could see them all in the finals again in 2017."
Considered a club legend at both the Broncos and Cowboys, Tate believes the Titans will do it tough in trying to reach the second week of the finals but has high hopes for his two former clubs.
"Their attack is looking sharp, but they still have some improvement to match last year's performances," Tate said of the Cowboys' prospects of going back-to-back.
"In saying that, there's plenty of experience in the side and that counts for a lot when you get into the finals.
"Last year's experience will help them this season.
"I've loved how the Broncos have put their game back together after their mid-season slump.
They scrapped to a win against St George Illawarra in Round 22 and haven't lost since.
"They have the ability to win the competition from outside the top four, but Ben Hunt is the key. When his running game is on and he's playing well, they're a completely different outfit and Hunt's form directly impacts how Anthony Milford plays.
"The Titans have had a good season, but it's the end of a long year. We can talk about how finals football is a whole new competition and how it all starts again, but you need confidence heading into the finals.
"I don't think they'll have the firepower to go with the Broncos, but it's set to be a cracking game at Suncorp Stadium."
The Finals Week 1 issue of Big League is on sale now at newsagents and at the ground. Digital version also available through www.zinio.com, the Apple iTunes Store and Google Play.
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