IT’S unlikely there were any red lights flashing or alarms sounding in NRL headquarters last week.
Mind you, nobody on the Titanic panicked until after it struck the iceberg.
History suggests rugby league’s powers-that-be regard “proactive” as a brand of margarine, and they rarely change anything until a situation has reached crisis point.
Hence their response to a report by Phil Rothfield in last Friday’s Daily Telegraph will presumably be to collectively duck their heads and allow it to pass through to the keeper.
For those who missed it, Rothfield revealed that television audiences for this year’s State of Origin series had dropped by 1.3 million – a 12.7 per cent decline – on last season.
Moreover, he added that there had been a slide of 2.54 million, or 21 per cent, in viewers since 2012.
With regards to this year’s numbers, NRL officials are entitled to proffer a variety of valid contributing factors.
The representative retirements of Queensland drawcards Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk was always going to have some impact.
The Sunday-night time slot for game two apparently did not rate as well, for reasons that escape me, as the traditional Wednesday fixtures.
And game three was a dead rubber, notwithstanding the significance of Billy Slater’s Origin swansong.
Nonetheless, this columnist can’t help wondering if the downturn is more than just an anomaly.
At the risk of being accused of heresy, is Origin starting to lose its appeal?
Ridiculous, you may well say. Origin remains Australia’s greatest sporting theatre – three grand finals rolled into one on an annual basis. It has been a juggernaut for the past 38 years and will be still be going strong another 38 years down the track.
Maybe so, but then again, one-day international cricket seemed similarly entrenched until a decade or so ago. Then along came Twenty20, and the Big Bash League boom, and all of a sudden the 50-over format appears an endangered species.
Other than the last World Cup, when was the last time Australian fans flocked to one-dayers in anywhere near the numbers that once poured through the turnstiles?
Likewise, this year’s Origin was well attended, with crowds of 87,122 (MCG), 82,223 (ANZ), and 51,214 (Suncorp), but none of the crowds well sell-outs.
While ever the big, fat cash cow known as Origin has been attracting massive TV ratings, gate-takings and corporate support, NRL officials have been content to let it simultaneously overshadow and undermine the club competition.
For the best part of two months each season, clubs suffer on and off the field.
The strongest teams are penalised by having to play without their rep stars, and supporters vote with bums on seats when they are asked to pay full freight for matches featuring depleted line-ups devoid of their favourite players. Origin compromises the entire NRL premiership, year in, year out. Yet it has been happening for so long now that it has become standard practice.
All of which brings Sporting Declaration to the conclusion that it is time to give Origin a makeover before it becomes too old and tired.
My first suggestion is surely a no-brainer.
Simply play the annual interstate series after the NRL competition has finished.
I would even look at shortening the 24-round regular season to 22 or 20 games, which would hopefully reduce the number of meaningless clashes.
Rep players would be added to NSW and Queensland train-on squads at whatever point their club commitments ended. Then play the grand final on a Friday night, and Origin I nine nights later on the Sunday.
Run the series over three consecutive weeks, after which the Australian side would be named for whatever end-of-season Test matches have been arranged.
NRL officials would no doubt be mortified with any proposal to tinker with the time-honoured Origin schedule.
But if they don’t try it, how do they know whether it would be a success?
I can’t help thinking that fans of all clubs, even the also-rans, would be excited about the prospect of having something to look forward to after full-time sounds in the grand final.
My other left-field concept, which I have discussed previously on this page, would be to introduce a third team into the Origin arena – Oceania.
This team would comprise players from New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands and would potentially give the series a whole new dimension.
Each team would play the others once, then the two top sides would meet in the final, so it would become a four-game series.
It’s not hard to imagine that an Oceania team featuring the likes of Shaun Johnson, Jesse Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Suliasi Vunivalu, Jason Taumalolo, Viliame Kikau, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris and Tevita Pangai Junior would be instantly competitive.
Wishful thinking? Perhaps so, but from memory that was precisely what led to the creation of State of Origin in the first place.
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