Rugby league vs State of Origin

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No State of Origin for Broncos halfback Ben Hunt, who returns from injury for the NZ Warriors game on Saturday (Benji Marshall in the wings) Photo courtesy

Dear readers, it’s time for those of you who don’t like rugby league or sport in general to get back to posting cat and dog photos on Facebook. Today we ask the unthinkable: why not scrap this faux State rivalry  called State of Origin and let footie players get back to their own teams?

Each year at this time, professional rugby league players face a massive conflict. If you’re good enough, fit enough and have that perceived ‘spark’ you’ll get picked for State Of Origin.

Kick-off for the first of three State of Origin games is this Wednesday evening. It’s Queensland vs New South Wales, although not really. You can be born and bred in Cunnamulla, but if your first senior game was played in Dubbo, then by default you become a NSW representative – a “Cockroach”. Likewise for the Queensland team. If you played your first senior footie for Brothers in Brisbane, you’re a Cane Toad.

But as Brisbane Broncos Chairman Dennis Watt says, “It’s always part of every player’s dream to play for their State and play for their country. If they get picked, nobody says no.”

Mr Watt says the State of Origin period (May 31-July 12) is a difficult management issue for the Brisbane Broncos, who have six senior players in the Queensland team for State of Origin I.

“It’s a big impost on the club but also an opportunity for younger players coming through.

“The fear is that top players will be injured. Traditionally we (Broncos) have not done well through the Origin period, with the exception of 2015.

“My other fear is that the junior players will eat too much at the buffet,” he quipped.

A touring group of 45 players, coaches and support staff left Brisbane this week, flying to Auckland for the match against the New Zealand Warriors. The group included 20 players from the Broncos under-20 team, who will also play on Saturday. All travel, accommodation and ancillary costs are covered by the NRL.

“The downside of State of Origin is that we are missing some of our best players,” he said. “We haven’t been playing great footy for 80 minutes (this year), but there’s a bit of grit about the team.”

Mr Watt, a former newspaper executive, says he is enjoying the challenge of helping Broncos chief executive Paul White oversee the construction of the Broncos’ new $27 million headquarters at Red Hill.

NRL.Com’s New Zealand correspondent Corey Rosser, previewing Saturday’s game at Mt Smart Stadium, seemed to be predicting a Broncos win. He reminded readers of the Warriors 30-14 loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons last week, while Brisbane scored six tries against the Wests Tigers to win 36-0.

Six Broncos players and Warriors veteran Jacob Lillyman will miss the Round 12 match in Auckland due to State of Origin commitments. The Broncos will be missing Darius Boyd, Corey Oates, Anthony Milford, Josh McGuire, Matt Gillett and Sam Thaiday. Also missing from the squad is hooker Andrew McCullough (injured).

Halfback Ben Hunt returns from injury, joining utility player Benji Marshall, who has had limited playing time for the Broncos in 2017. Newcomers or players who rarely get a run include Jai Arrow, Jonus Pearson, Jaydn Su’A, Travis Waddell and George Fai (making his first-grade debut). The Broncos named Tevita Pangai Junior, Jamayne Isaako and Joe Boyce as reserves.

We were at Lang Park stadium in Brisbane on May 13 for the ‘double-header’ rugby league event. We got there at 5.15 and the first game between The Gold Coast Titans and the Melbourne Storm had already started. The crowd, which later swelled to 44,127, was already vocal. There were conflicting cries of “Go Billy, Go” or “Hayne Train.” If you want a quiet Saturday night out, don’t do it to yourself.

It is interesting how a football stadium becomes a microcosm of the broader city. There were a few “pre-loaded” young blokes intent upon drinking themselves into a stupor, a few young women wearing heels and nightclub clothes instead of the ubiquitous Broncos fan jumpers. There were also happy family groups behind and in front of us, one woman willing to take our photo ‘in situ.’

“Don’t try posting that to Facebook from here, mate” she advised. “Everyone’s on it and it will take ages to upload.” She was right. The Titans made an unbelievable comeback and beat the Storm 38-36.

Then we were between matches. The Manly cheerleaders came on the field in tiny white shorts and halter tops and did a dance routine. Many people streamed out and thronged to the bar. There were queues for food, queues for the loos and those not otherwise engaged were checking their phones or checking out the tiny white shorts.

When I returned to my seat, the Little League game was in progress. These keen young kids play across a small section of the field at half-time. Even with the under-6 kids, you can spot the future stars. They are the ones who run straight and hard, tackle properly or who show footwork and pace. One particular young lad crossed the goal line four times. There are a few different age categories of mini league kids between 6 and 10. Hard to know which is which when there’s no commentary, just a seemingly muddled group of kids getting carved up by the three or four who know what’s going on.

“Go, son, go” came a shout from somewhere behind me, “Go! You beauty.” (as the kid scored between the plastic goal posts.

Then Manly (boo) and the Brisbane Broncos (yay) ran out for the main match. We were up and down like that Whack-A-Mole sideshow game. Every few minutes we were standing, flipping back our seats back while someone struggled their way to the other end of the row, carrying four dribbling beers in a plastic tray. This went on all night, even though drinks are expensive at Lang Park (sorry, Suncorp Stadium). She Who Listens to the Radio While Watching Footie shouted “Why don’t you sit down and stay sat.” I pointed out that as she had headphones in her ears, the remark may have been louder than she thought. “Good,” she mouthed.

Despite a dismal first half, when Manly piled on 14 unanswered points, one of the best coaches in the game (Wayne Bennett) must have said inspiring words at half-time. The Broncos came back from a 14-0 deficit to win the match 24-14.

As 44,127 people were being squeezed like toothpaste out of Suncorp Stadium’s various exits, I had that panicky feeling like when you’re about to go under anaesthetic but nobody has given you pethidine yet.

If you don’t like crowds and noise and can’t afford decent seats, you’re far better off watching rugby league on TV, or listen to the game on ABC Grandstand. You’ll get a better word picture of the game and even details often missed by Nine’s commentators like who replaced who from the bench (and why). And you’ll never hear discussions about whether players should wear their socks up or down.

Shut up, Gus!

 

Bread and circuses

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Photo by JunkByJo https://flic.kr/p/5ai8X8 (How quickly faces change in the NRL: Broncos vs Raiders 2008 (l-r) Carmichael Hunt (AFL), Michael Ennis (Sharks), Darren Lockyer (commentator), Denan Kemp (Australian Sevens), Dane Gagai (Newcastle), Nick Kenny (retired)

Not for nothing did the Roman Empire invent the phrase ‘bread and circuses.’ This unbeatable public policy formula was coined by a Roman scribe in an attempt to arrest the decline of heroism among Romans. It means a government soothing its anxious tax payers by providing food and grand spectacles, in this context, the footie grand final.

In Roman times the serfs gathered in vast public arenas, encouraged to give the thumbs down to beaten gladiators. Today we have the less life-threatening ‘Mexican Wave’ and the lone dickhead yelling something incomprehensible during a minute’s silence to honour a fallen comrade.

At a base level, keeping the people dull-witted by swamping them with heroic spectacles (the Olympics, the Ashes, the Melbourne Cup, the World Cup, the State of Origin, the Tour De France, Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the FA Cup, the Grand Prix…) can and does work.

Some might say it stops us analysing what is wrong with the world and how best to fix it. It might even be where a lot of the money that could be used to fix what’s wrong with the world is spent.

There’s nothing like Grand Final weekend to focus the mind on just how much money is spent organising, promoting and playing professional sports. We’ll talk about the Australian Football League (AFL) final in a bit, but for purely parochial purposes, let’s look at the National Rugby League (NRL) grand final.

There’s a reason 4.4 million people tuned in to Channel Nine last year for the 80-minute plus overtime contest between the Cowboys and the Broncos (the Cowboys won 17-16 in the ‘golden point’ overtime period, remember?). It comes down to the cost of actually attending the game. Tickets at Sydney’s Olympic Park this year range from $45 to $375. If you drive there, a standard parking fee of $25 applies. So even if Mum Dad and the two kids drive to the game and snag the cheapest tickets, it’s still a $300 day out by the time you factor in petrol, pies and burgers, chips, beer and whatever memorabilia is sold to you on the way in (and out).

Bu that is small beer compared to the Victorian Government’s decision to declare a new public holiday for the AFL Grand Final. An economic impact study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimated the costs of the two new public holidays (the other adds Easter Sunday to Good Friday as a gazetted public holiday), at between $717 million and $898 million. But as The Age reported, the Grand Final Eve holiday accounts for up to $852 million of the costs. PwC estimates the new public holidays will result in increased public holiday wage payments of between $252 million and $286 million.

Notwithstanding, this weekend offers a veritable feast of footie, especially if you follow both codes (AFL and NRL), and you can watch the games live on TV for nothing. Last year’s AFL final between the West Coast Eagles and Hawthorn drew 3.9 million viewers for the Saturday afternoon game. At $180 to $399 for a reserved seat at the Melbourne Cricket Ground you can understand why.

Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Footie finals means enduring saturation level advertising. At $130k minimum for a 30-second TV ad, advertisers nevertheless throw buckets of cash at the time slot to ensure its viewers know that their brand of car, beer, burger, mobile phone, betting app or hipster beard styling product is the best.

The stars of the show get well looked after. The 34 Melbourne Storm and Cronulla Sharks players (including four interchange players from each team), collectively earned about $7 million this year. That includes $4.27 million to most valued players in both teams; the highest paid (Storm captain Cameron Smith, $1.1 million), has a 72.3% success rate for kicking goals – more on this later.

I cite these more than adequate wages ($205,882 p.a. on average), not to irritate musician friends who customarily play four-hour gigs for about $100 per band member. No, footie players at this elite level deserve to be well paid for keeping themselves in top notch physical and psychological health and for learning how to stick to the script in after-match interviews:

Just happy to get the two points, mate’ or ‘we stuck to the game plan and saw out the 80 minutes’ or ‘Thanks to (sponsor) and (sponsor) and can I just say g’day to my Auntie in Cairns.’

So did you know that 53 NRL players earn more than $400,000 a year and a handful of those earn more than $1 million? Give them a break. It’s a short-lived career – 15 years at best. For those who invest and take the time to plan an after-footie career, it’s a good financial start.

Former Bronco turned sports commentator Gordon Tallis once famously said (amid a heated discussion about whether someone was offside or was that a forward pass) – “Guys, it’s just a game of footie.”

As is our custom, we will have friends over for pies and vegies and a good old fashioned yell at the television set. People in our village are sharply divided into (a) footie fans (the kind that own season tickets and belong to tipping clubs); (b) secret footie fans (those who would like to stay friends with (c) people who think there is something acutely wrong with our otherwise satisfactory level of mindfulness.

Mind you, I have seen hippies come out of the chemist shop clutching Lotto tickets, so nobody’s perfect.

She Who Yells at the Television says footie is great escapism and better, there’s a beginning, middle and end.

One’s level of interest in the Grand Final (if one has an interest at all), is predicated on whether the team you follow made it into the match.

This year our interest is academic – the highly accomplished wrestling team (the Melbourne Storm) versus the western Sydney outsiders, the Cronulla Sharks. As the late Jack Gibson once said: “Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt.” (Thanks to Roger the dentist for reminding me of this gem SWYATT)

Last year 82,000 people came to Olympic Park to watch the grand final and this year will be no different. A sold-out stadium is good business for those all-essential broadcast media deals. The NRL annual report detailed the five-year deal signed on 27 November 2015.

The Australian Rugby League Commission, Nine Network, News Corp Australia, Fox Sports and Telstra signed agreements to provide free to air television, pay television and mobile coverage of Rugby League for five years from 2018. The deal is worth $1.8 billion to the NRL, which makes gate takings of $57 million in 2015 look relatively modest.

I was going to write about (live) betting on footie but She Who Edits says no, it is stupid, immoral and leaves players open to temptation.

But, did you know you can get odds of 151-1 on no try being scored in Sunday’s match? Imagine!

The Rugby League Project records show that in 1986, the Parramatta Eels beat the Canterbury Bulldogs 4-2 in the only try-less Grand Final to date. Michael Cronin (Eels) kicked two penalties from four attempts, Terry Lamb (Dogs) kicked one from two.

Take the two, Cameron, take the two!