The desire of most NRL players to stop the Telstra Premiership for a mid-season stand-alone State of Origin series will be discussed during a phone hook-up between International Rugby League deputy chair Troy Grant and club CEOs on Tuesday.
State of Origin scheduling was among the questions in the NRL.com Players’ Poll in conjunction with the Sydney Morning Herald and 59 per cent of the 147 respondents said they believed the NRL should introduce a stand-alone Origin period in the middle of the season.
This has been a long-held view by many within the game, who have argued that State of Origin is a greater competitor for NRL clubs than AFL, as they lose players, fans and media coverage for up to eight weeks each season.
South Sydney CEO Blake Solly and chairman Nicholas Pappas last year tabled a proposal that would have meant only one NRL round was impacted, with NSW and Queensland picking squads to go into camp for the first two matches while the premiership was suspended.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary favours a shortened NRL season and said a stand-alone Origin series could fit into that, while Canberra CEO Don Furner and Cronulla CEO Dino Mezzatesta agreed a stand-alone Origin period would be “ideal”.
A stand-alone Origin series would enable players with niggling injuries to recover, create an opportunity for a trade window and ensure that teams aren’t forced to play matches without their NSW or Queensland stars.
However, Origin delivers three of the top five most-watched programs on Australia television each year so Channel 9 is understandably reluctant to tinker with a proven ratings winner, while the broadcast deal with Fox Sports guarantees eight matches per round.
Without alternative content, Fox Sports would be likely to argue that they should pay less for the broadcast rights.
Growing the international game is an obvious solution and the IRL, ARLC and Britain’s Rugby Football League have formed a tri-party committee to consider how the two professional leagues can help achieve that in a post-COVID environment.
“That work is getting closer. [Acting NRL CEO] Andrew Abdo and [RFL CEO] Ralph Rimmer have been really good,” said Grant, who was a member of the Project Apollo team charged with getting the NRL re-started on May 28.
“I have got a hook-up with the CEOs from the clubs tomorrow as part of the consultation for that process. We want to make sure clubs in the NRL and Super League have a say and they get a buy in.”
Among the main issues for the clubs are the risk of injury to representative stars, how they can be compensated and player burn-out.
However, representative football has been of growing importance to players since the 2017 World Cup and Grant said the release of the 2020 NRL player poll was timely.
“I will be talking about that poll with the CEOs tomorrow and saying the players obviously have a majority appetite for that,” he said.
“I understand the clubs would be reluctant because if we were to have that mid-season representative break, the Fox money won’t be there unless we can give them some other product.
“What we would have to do is make the international game at least commercially viable and give Fox, Sky and the other broadcasters a product they could run.”
Growing the international game
The NRL staged a stand-alone representative weekend in 2018 and 2019, featuring Women’s State of Origin on Friday night, Pacific Tests and Oceania Cup fixtures on Saturday, and Origin on Sunday night.
The concept was scheduled to continue this season but the New Zealand-Tonga and Samoa-Cook Islands Oceania Cup double-header on June 20 was cancelled, while the men’s and women’s Origin fixtures have been moved to the end of the season.
The Kiwis are expected to play Tonga and some other Pacific nations may also be involved in Tests while the Origin series is being staged and some, including Australia coach Mal Meninga, believe it is better to have representative football confined to the end of the season.
Meninga would like a Kangaroos team to be selected after the Origin series to play the winner of New Zealand versus Tonga and NSW and Australian hooker Damien Cook said that this season would provide a test case.
“I guess that making the most out of a bad situation this year we will be able to see how Origin works at the end of the season,” Cook said.
“If it works well it leads into any Aussie games that may happen after that so there are definitely some big positives behind that but it would be a big challenge to take Origin away from the middle of the year where it has been for so long.”
Cook’s Rabbitohs team-mate Tom Burgess said a stand-alone Origin period during the season could create the opportunity for English players in the NRL to play a Test, as they did in 2018 against New Zealand in Denver when the Super League and NRL both introduced a representative weekend.
“If that does happen there is an opening there for us to fly back to England and have a game there,” Burgess said. “There is an opportunity for us to grow the international game as well as giving the players a break through the season.”
Minimising the impact of Origin
Managing player workload with the demands of representative football and a 24-round NRL season, plus finals, has been an ongoing issue and it’s why the Kangaroos are unlikely to play a Test this season as Origin doesn’t conclude until November 18.
Solly and Pappas last year submitted a compromise plan in which Origin squads would be selected after the final match of the round on Sunday. The proposal included:
· Origin I to be played the following Sunday night, with no NRL matches that weekend
· Players stay in camp to prepare for Origin II, while a weekend featuring international matches and women’s Origin is played but no NRL games
· Origin II is played 10 days after Origin I, on a Wednesday night
· Players available for their clubs on the weekend before the teams for Origin III are selected on the Sunday night
· A full round of club matches played the next weekend, with Origin stars unavailable
· Origin III is played the following Wednesday night
“The players would be unavailable for only one NRL match with their clubs and there are still two Wednesday night State of Origins, one Sunday night Origin and a stand-alone representative weekend for internationals and women’s Origin,” Solly said.
“The feeling of the meeting was that we need to spend some time actually thinking about this. The clubs clearly want to minimise the impact of Origin on the NRL competition.”
Former Souths GM of football Shane Richardson told NRL.com last November that the Telstra Premiership should be reduced to 22 rounds, with stand-alone State of Origin matches, a world 9s circuit and more focus on the international game.
Cleary, the Penrith coach, shares a similar view.
“I’m a fan of reducing the NRL season so if that includes stand-alone Origin, then that’s fine,” Cleary said. “I firmly believe that the 9’s format should be used for the internationals at the season’s end, instead of the club format, apart from the World Cup years.”
Resistance to tampering with Origin formula
Blues coach Brad Fittler, whose team is tipped by 70 per cent of NRL players to win a third consecutive series in part two of the NRL.com/Sydney Morning Herald Players’ Poll which will be announced on Tuesday at midday, believes the season schedule should remain as it has been in recent seasons.
And NSWRL CEO David Trodden has asked: “If it is not broken why fix it?”
Trodden was Wests Tigers chairman before taking on his current role so he understands the frustration of clubs but believes it is impossible to satisfy everyone.
“If there were no club matches during the Origin period then inevitably there would be criticism that we are surrendering space to AFL,” Trodden said.
“It is certainly not broken at the moment and there are as many questions as there are answers with any suggestion to change it.”
Fittler said: “I’m in favour of the way it is at the moment – pre-COVID”.
Furner was also cautious about the impact of a stand-alone Origin series, as overwhelmingly favoured in the 2020 NRL players poll.
“Yes, that would be ideal,” the Raiders CEO said. “However, what the players don’t realise is that Fox would then pay less for broadcast rights of NRL matches. So then ask the players would they be happy for a pay reduction.”
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.