By STEVE MASCORD
WE’VE got to be careful when we talk about turning points in State Of Origin history.
In 2006, Origin was said to be endangered because NSW had won three series in a row. In a strange sort of way, the fact no-one is saying that now – after six consecutive Queensland series victories – is a testament to how maroon the entire Origin concept is.
Origin was invented for Queensland, to make Queensland competitive, and as long as the Maroons are going well the series is serving its purpose in the universe
But it must be said we are at a crossroads right now – even if it’s a backblocks crossroads. If Origin II this month marks the beginning of the end of the Queensland dynasty, let this story stand as a record of all that has been done in the cause of ending it.
If the dynasty continues, let this serve as a cautionary tale…. we have taken a few tabloid-like observations about what the Blues have “resorted to” in a bid to topple the Maroon juggernaut since 2006 and then we’ve applied the broadsheet treatment to each of them, talking to former NSW coach Graham Murray, Brian Canavan – the man who put together the “Blue paper” a couple of years ago aimed at bringing the coachroaches up to speed – and former prop Mark O’Meley.
Here it is: for want of a better title, we’ll call it Six Long Years Of Trying.
CHOPPING AND CHANGING
SINCE 2006, NSW have used 77 players to Queensland’s 45. The Blues have fielded 14 halves pairings, compared with Queensland’s four. Principally, of course, this has a lot to do with one thing – losing. “It is, when you lose you are expected to react and try something different,” says Murray, quoting the saying ‘winners have parties, losers have meetings.” But Canavan noted ingrained differences between the states that perpetuate this phenomenon, regardless of results. “Sometimes positives can become a hindrance,” he says. “Fifty-three per cent of players in the NRL are eligible for NSW, compared with 26 per cent for Queensland. Queensland have a much smaller pool and greater quantity can confuse the issue. The Maroons have fewer selection dilemmas. When you have to choose the same players each year, they get greater experience at that level. In the 2010 series, NSW had a total of 87 caps (worth of experience) compared to 158 with Queensland. Although Queensland had a smaller pool, there has been really, really good quality since 2000 and they have played together at that level.” In NSW, too, there is a more diverse media and a denser administrative structure with more opinions being thrown around. “Looking back, I guess it does affect you,” says Murray. “Everyone wants to have their say.” So, has this stopped? Should it stop? “The answer is unfolding as we speak,” says Canavan, who explains that a huge treasure trove of statistical data was used to pick this year’s Blues side. It is provided by the clubs – we’re talking GPS stats that show what players do in games and at training. All clubs co-operate, he says, “some more than others” but the information on what the players do in NSW camp is then returned to the clubs so players aren’t over- or under-worked. The same information is being collected by NSW teams at Under 16s and Under 18s level. In other words, there are more hoops to jump through to get into the NSW team now, more evidence about why players should stay, so they should begin to get more experience together.
BRINGING THE BIFF/INTIMIDATION
“BILLY Johnstone once said to me,” recalls Murray, “that there’s no such thing as an ambush in State Of Origin. You know what you’re in for.” Murray paints of a picture of the biff bringing itself back at Origin time, rather than it being part of any pre-meditated strategy. “You get guys like Steve Roach come in and talk to the players. I never got to State of Origin as a player but you listen to those guys and … it’s pretty full-on.” This year there was a belief NSW planned to outscore Queensland rather than focus on aggression – although this was never plainly stated by the coaching staff. Nonetheless, the Blues managed just 10 points in Mebourne, with kicks playing a big role. “I had Wayne Pearce, Phil Gould and Ricky Stuart as coaches and Muzz is right – they never said that just aggression was going to be our approach to a game,” said O’Meley. “Everyone had their own jobs.” The way forward? Evidence from Origin I and the way it was controlled would suggest the days of the biff are numbered. O’Meley disagrees. “I think sending (Michael) Jennings to the sin bin was a mistake and it won’t happen again,” he tells us from Hull. “Generally speaking, you don’t get sent off or get 10 in Origin. If it starts to happen, your average Aussie fans will switch off because that’s why you watch it, because it’s different to club football.”
THE editor thought trying to get Israel Folau banned from the 2010 series because he was going to AFL was a potential act of “sabotage” by NSW against Queensland. But the ARL has a long-standing policy of selecting teams with the future in mind, and leaving out those who defect. It is not the act of “sabotage” that is the question but rather the fact that ARL policy most often resides south of the border. It’s much easier for the QRL to defy ARL policy than it is for the same NSWRL officials who came up with it to do so. “That’s right, it’s policy,” agrees Murray. “I was just at the schoolboy championships and the NSW CHS schools acknowledged ‘all the boys who have gone on to represent their state and country’. Greg Inglis was there. He played CHS. There’s an opportunity there to work a lot harder on those rules, that policy, to make it black and white.” Certainly, Ricky Stuart is swimming hard against this tide by insisting on picking his team a day early, opposing the match in Melbourne, selecting 18th and 19th men and last year asking players to sit out the club round before the three decider. The anomalies will be further removed by the new forms young players must fill in outlining their eligibility, making it harder for the states to “recruit” each others’ players. “There are seven criteria questions you must answer,” says Canavan, “and if you four answers match up, that’s the state you must play for.” O’Meley, in 10 appearances for NSW, never thought the support from the NSWRL was wanting. “In the Australian team, yes,” he said. “Queensland did seem to get the blokes that wanted. But not in the NSW team. We’ve got our own problems in NSW anyway, with Country blokes playing for City and all that.”
“THE biggest thing that NSW have done is appoint a fulltime coach,” says Murray. “For me to coach against Johnathan Thurston was not pleasant. I know for a fact that Michael Hagan found the same thing with coaching against Andrew Johns. And Craig Bellamy against his Queensland players. It’s just that you know what they can do to take you apart.” Canavan’s ‘Blue Paper’ had many facets. He says NSW was “conceptually” the same as Queensland but in practice, “you’re dealing with a different backyard”. He says the Country Rugby League initially stood by and watched the reforms, which involved identifying potential future State of Origin players at a young stage. “We’ve now integrated the Country Rugby League,” he says. “Ricky will go to the Country centres, meet their coaches, talk to them – and he’s very impressed with what he’s seen.” Stuart speaks to coaches of NSW under age teams and talks to them about what sort of player he is looking for, what sort of football he wants to be playing, much like a club coach. “And we have benchmarking,” explains Canavan. “For instance, Paul Gallen is the benchmark for props. He pushes out 250 metres per game, 30 tackles, covers maybe six kilometres in attack and defence. So a player coming up through the NSW Under 18s in that position needs to work towards getting figures like that.” O’Meley sees other important aspects in which the Blues can ape their rivals. “You look at a player like Ashley Harrison – he may not stand out when you watch him play a club game,” the former Bulldog, Bear and Rooster says. “But he comes in and does a job for Queensland. In NSW, because there’re so many players to pick from, players get overlooked if their team is further down the ladder. Tim Mannah, he might be able to do a good job for NSW but would not make the team because of where Parra’ are on the table.” NSW’s High Performance Unit – “a global trend in sport,” says Canavan – has been meeting weekly for months. Overall, Canavan says he is happy with the implementation of his document, with the involvement of the NSW Institute of Sport the only block not in place. “And that comes down to funding,” he adds. “You’ve got to hand it to Ricky, he’s really rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in.”
COMPLAINING ABOUT REFS
MURRAY argues that both sides whinge about referees, depending on what the result of the game is. The states have less influence on appointments than they used to. “I think it’s a tit for tat thing,” Murray says. “You say things you think are relevant. I think Mal Meninga has had his say from time to time as well. You’ve got to be careful, you don’t want to say too much but there are little things here and there where you think you might get something out of it.” O’Meley and Canavan leave this to coaches. “As players, we were pretty much muzzled, we couldn’t say anything there,” O’Meley said. “They might like certain styles of referees. The last game, I can’t say much about the referees. It was just the video referee. Was it Sean Hampstead? He’s usually good. He just made an honest mistake I guess. “
MEDIA BANS AND STRATEGIES
IN Origin, losing teams in the modern era often say very little afterwards. But current coach Ricky Stuart hit the headlines this year when he specifically instructed his players not to comment to the waiting media. “In 2006, we’re winning for most of the game and then one loose pass and we get beaten,” Murray says. “I couldn’t talk. I copped a bit of a basting in the media for not saying much after the game but I’m not sure what they expected, for me to sit there all cheery? You’re devastated. It’s unrealistic to expect me to sit there and give them all the stories they want.” But dealing with the media is actually a written part of the description of the NSW coach’s job, Canavan reveals. “There’s a fair bit of it in the document, actually,” says Canavan. “The NSW coach has to be accessible to the media. He has to be the face of the NSW Origin campaign and we are lucky that we have people like Mal and Ricky to be the face of Origin.” Why do NSW need a cheerleader as coach? Murray thinks he can explain it – and it cuts to the heart of everything discussed above. “I played for Parramatta and I hated Manly,” he says. “I didn’t hate Redcliffe or Brisbane Easts. We had to bring guys from NSW together, who had that rivalry, whereas in Queensland they always hated us. I’m not saying they didn’t have a rivalry or dislike amongst themselves – but they always had someone down here they hated more.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK