On Monday the Queensland Maroons and New South Wales Blues named their squads for State of Origin Game One.
The State of Origin series is one of the biggest events on Australia’s sporting calendar. It is one of the only sporting events where enthusiasm and interest peaks and stays at a high-level for several weeks. It’s reflected in the fact that fans starting thinking about their State of Origin teams from Round 1 each year and that since the squads were announced on Monday, the rugby league world has done very little other than analyse the teams. Federal Member Bod Katter even decided to issue a press release when his favourite player wasn’t selected for the Maroons.
Plenty of questions have been asked following the selections.
Should Paul Vaughan have made the Blues squad? Why wasn’t Billy Slater picked for Queensland? Can New South Wales finally win the series this year? Will Johnathan Thurston be fit?
While everyone gets excited about State of Origin (even non-traditional rugby league fans) other forms of representative football do not benefit from the same high levels of enthusiasm and have, unfortunately experienced some controversy this year.
Leading into the Country-City game earlier this year, several coaches made it clear that they would not allow their players to play in the fixture.
In the lead-up to the State of Origin squads being announced there was also some banter between Kevin Walters and Wayne Bennett after it was revealed by Bennett that if Anthony Milford was named on an extended bench for Queensland, Bennett would not let him play. The only way that Bennett was going to release Milford for Queensland State of Origin camp was if he was named in the starting squad – and that’s exactly what Walters decided to do.
From a coaches perspective I get it. I understand that their key concern is one of their players being injured and subsequently impacting their team’s ability to make the finals and potentially win the premiership.
For some teams like the Brisbane Broncos, they are also significantly impacted during the State of Origin period, with seven players unavailable during the period due to selection. In a competition as close as this year’s, every win is important and I understand the sense of frustration that coaches with plenty of representative players feel when they see their teams struggle during this period (especially when some teams don’t have these concerns at all).
Despite these very real concerns – my response is tough luck.
I feel extremely uncomfortable about coaches who think that it is appropriate for them to dictate which games their players can be available for.
Either your players should be available for all representative duties or for none at all.
Other than preserving the quality of our representative fixtures and ensuring that Australian rugby league fulfils its responsibility of actively supporting and promoting international rugby league, the more fundamental reason that players must be able to play representative football is because for so many of our players, the opportunity to play representative football is what they grow up thinking about and what they train and work so hard for.
For many players, representative football gives them the opportunity to fulfil a dream and whether it is representing their town, state or country, it is often seen as a tremendous honour.
We saw a very demonstrable example of that this week, when the following tweet was dug up by Andrew Wester from Nathan Peats’ twitter account from 2012.
Even though I won't make it and I'm fine with that, I would love and give anything just to play one game of origin for NSW... #bleedblue4eva— Nathan Peats (@nathanpeats9) July 4, 2012
This is the sort of passion and desire to play representative football that I want to see from all our players and I cannot imagine what running out in a sky blue jumper next Wednesday night will mean for Nathan Peats.
On a personal note, I was very excited to see Peats selected. The selection is the result of many years of hard work and Nathan was also one of my favourite players when he played for the Parramatta Eels.
He is a player who can never be accused of not trying.
When he was at the Eels he was not only a leader at the club but someone that fans very much considered to be part of the heart of the team. At all times he gave 100 per cent for the blue and gold jersey. He was resilient, committed and on plenty of occasions put his body on the line for the club – playing through pain and injury and refusing to leave the field just so he wouldn’t let his mates down.
This team mentality and focus was in complete opposition to the behaviours which resulted in the Eels being in a situation where Nathan became a convenient scapegoat for a regime that was blatantly breaching the salary cap.
Despite losing him to the Gold Coast Titans, due to the way he handled that horrible situation he is always a player I have admired and respected. I still get goose bumps when I remember Parramatta Eels fans chanting his name at the 9th minute in our first home game after he had left the club.
I know how hard he has worked and it is so special to see a player express so authentically and genuinely what representative honours mean to them.
I want to congratulate Nathan on his selection and wish him all the very best for his State of Origin debut next Wednesday night. I only wish that all players were given the opportunity to play representative football and for it to mean as much to them as this Wednesday night will mean for him.