Original Sins

Forty20 August 201311092013By STEVE MASCORD

YOU’D imagine after 27 years writing stories like this (but better) that this hack had done everything in the boutique-sized universe of rugby league media duties.

True, I have covered games by battling tear gas in the Papua New Guinea highlands, electrical blackouts in Lebanon and hangovers in Keighley.

I even once received a text from Clinton Schifcofske as he was lining up a conversion from the western touchline at Suncorp Stadium.

But watching State of Origin from the sideline was one journalistic odyssey that had hitherto eluded me. The honour was finally bestowed thanks to Sydney FM radio station Triple M securing the rights this year and was made even more enjoyable by the fact that during the game, I didn’t have to actually say anything on air.

No doubt listeners were also grateful for this.

For Origins I and III in Sydney, I sat next to former NSW centre Ryan Girdler and a tech a few short metres from the whitewash and just watched (and Tweeted and Instagrammed). For the second match in Brisbane, it was former Maroon Ben Hannant, and I was behind him, which meant I didn’t see quite as much…..

In the last edition of Forty20, new Melbourne chief executive Mark Evans theorised that Origin “transcends” rugby league in Australia. That may have sounded to you like hyperbole but it’s not – the focus of the entire nation (yes, even including ‘heathen’ states) is on that patch of grass three times a year and the occasion radiates a visceral energy that bears almost no relation to what happens at eight grounds each weekend in the NRL.
A study of the thousands of New South Wales fans who make up Blatchy’s Blues, the supporters group that painted the northern end of ANZ Stadium their colour of choice with jerseys, facepaint and flags, has indicated very few of them are members of NRL clubs.

Yes, there are people in Australia who will go out on a winter’s night with their bare chests painted blue and wearing a ridiculous wig but who otherwise won’t go to a rugby league game.

Being so close to something which others hold in such reverence is enervating and almost intoxicating. One cannot fail to be transfixed as the teams run out to cacophonous response and stand in front of you for the national anthem, even if one is jaded by rugby league and disinterested in the result of the match that follows.

Being close does give you the opportunity to imagine what it would be like to be a participant.

Throughout the series I have waffled on about how the players have, intellectually, always had a licence to be more physical, more brutal, more violent, than in club matches. This behaviour has been tacitly condoned by officials, who were raking in the cash from the public expectation of fireworks.

But sitting on the sideline, you realise the imprimatur is not just intellectual. It’s primal. It eminates from the 82,000 souped-up speccies who come not just expecting stiff-arms and fisticuffs but demanding it.

In terms of the publicity, the atmosphere and historical convention, it’s actually a miracle of restraint on the part of the 34 players that Origin is not just one big 360 minute rolling brawl.

Of course, a lot has changed since NSW coach Laurie Daley described Paul Gallen’s high shot, followed by a flurry of punches, on Nate Myles in game one as “a great Origin moment”. Gallen was suspended, new NRL boss David Smith and referees’ boss Daniel Anderson banned fighting and four players were sent to the sin bin in game two.

The fallout from these decisions is still being felt. Former Super League referee Ashley Klein didn’t survive the series, dropped after game two. Former players everywhere decried the “sanitisation” of rugby league.

But the world didn’t end. There wasn’t a spare seat at Origin III. The Manchester United players who attended the decider didn’t complain about a limp spectacle played by pansies.

There were other sub-plots, as usual. Where else can horse-riding accidents and lewd phone calls decide the make-up of teams?

Off the field, NSW seemed to impode. Winger Blake Ferguson was charged with indecent assault and dropped, fullback Josh Dugan was with him at the time but managed to keep himself out of trouble.

Mal Meninga serving himself in backpacker bar also became a big story, for some reason. The impending birth of Johnathan Thurston ‘s first child in the lead-up to game two was compounded by a stomach virus about which remains curiously reluctant to talk.

But the central narrative was the same as the previous seven years. Origin’s entire viability was said to be in jeopardy in 2005 when NSW had dominated the series – because the concept was dreamed up specifically to make the Maroons competitive.

But after eight consecutive series wins by Queensland, State of Origin is in rude health. Such humiliation seems to be what it takes to get the attention of the cynical Sydney public. Shifting games to Melbourne, such an attractive proposition for the last 23 years, now seems like an indulgence.

Yes, Queensland’s side seems to be aging. But in Daly Cherry Evans and Chris McQueen, they have rookies at least as promising as those of their opponents.

NSW have finally dispatched with their penchant for sacking a raft of players every time they lose. This is something they appear to have the depth to do – but because Origin is for Queensland, Queensland set the cultural tone and revolving door selection policies resultantly don’t work.

Nathan Merritt’s selection for game two was widely lauded; the 30-year-old had been waiting almost an entire career for the opportunity. But although coach Daley took responsibility for telling Merritt to come in off his wing in defence, he was dropped after just one appearance.

The test of a competitive representative series is when selection cannot be used as a reward; when necessity dictates that the worthy must miss out because they are not the right people to achieve the desired result.

Australia can still select players as a reward. NSW have now learned they cannot.

At this point I have written 1000 words on the 2013 State of Origin series without mentioning the scores. NSW won Origin I 14-6,. Queensland took out Origin II 26-6 and the Maroons wrapped up Origin III 12-10.

“We’re not getting closer because last year we lost by one and this year it was two,” NSW captain Gallen deadpanned.

Am I the only person with a front seat at public events who often wonders what would happen if he interrupted them spectacularly? What if you suddenly started spewing expletives, sexist or racist epithets at a press conference on live TV? What if you ran on at a crucial moment in a match, from your seat on the sideline, and tried to tackle someone?

In conclusion, then, I’d like to mention another enriching experienced I gleaned from the 2013 State Of Origin series. Thank you, Wati Holmwood, for helping me answer this long-held question without me actually having to go out there and do it.

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

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