It has been said before following a series domination that State of Origin as a concept is at the crossroads, but 42 years after the first Origin was played it feels like it may be losing some of its lustre.
There is absolutely no question that Origin is at its strongest when Queensland are at their strongest. The Maroons do not always need to have the strongest roster or the biggest stars but they do have to exude the Queensland spirit that is prized like a fragment of the True Cross.
Following a combined 76-6 deficit over this year’s first two Origins, both played in Queensland, it is clear this iteration of the Maroons suffers a huge talent deficit, while their ability to play above the sum of their parts as they traditionally have just simply is not there. The latter point is probably key. Maroons fans have often embraced the gutsy underdog teams of yore. This season they are getting an ordinary team playing with not nearly enough passion.
Combined with the context of where rugby league is at in 2021, the aura that Origin has long had is no guarantee of continuing in future.
Queensland’s sharp slide into mediocrity could not have come at a worse time with the new rule interpretations making it far more likely that better teams will blow out worse teams while the rise in both quality and quantity of Pacific Island, and to a lesser extent English, players is having an impact on how Origin is perceived.
The story of Origin has been built on the best players in the game meeting in the furnace of state pride. It is built on passion above all. The central themes of the game have always focused on David v Goliath tales and Breaking Bad-esque cliffhangers.
Origin once undoubtedly contained nearly all the best players in the premiership, but it now undoubtedly does not. Pacific Island players now conservatively make up 40% of NRL players and some of the biggest names over the last 15 years have been English born yet many are not eligible to play Origin. While the match was never intended to be an All-Star clash, for its first three decades the game was in fact a de facto All-Star game.
The ongoing push to widen eligibility eats away at Origin’s standing in the game. The confusion surrounding eligibility – including the shameful Ronaldo Mulitalo affair – also undermines state pride, at least in the eyes of fans. Mulitalo may view himself as Queensland through and through, but the farcical nature of his selection and then withdrawal showed Queensland to be both desperate and reckless and brought to the fore eligibility debates that really have the potential to diminish Origin.
While it became fairly apparent fairly early on that the refereeing crackdown on head contact would not extend to the Origin arena, the six-again rule solidifies the dominance of good teams. It creates momentum and makes winning it back for inferior teams far more difficult.
There has arguably not been a less anticipated match than the third game of this series, a dead rubber in NSW with Queensland having few options to make the changes necessary.
The Maroons have very few selection options. It is highly doubtful Kalyn Ponga would have any interest in returning at fullback, particularly given his injury history and relationship with coach Paul Green. There is no doubt wholesale changes are needed in the three-quarter line. Kyle Feldt can surely not be picked again after another disastrous game and unsurprisingly Xavier Coates looked completely unprepared.
Kurt Capewell is simply too slow to play in the centres. Dane Gagai is dramatically out of form. Daly Cherry-Evans is proving an uninspiring captain and is a very real possibility of being dropped from both the captaincy and the No 7 jersey for Ben Hunt. The likes of David Fifita, Felise Kaufusi and Jai Arrow continue to be man-handled as they struggle to adapt to the speed. Reece Walsh may be a chance to come back in, as may Harry Grant, but the cupboard is bare.
More pressingly for the Maroons though is what they do about the coaching role. Green almost certainly will not be back next season. While he cannot be blamed for the huge talent gulf between the two states, it is hard to recall a Queensland team that has played with less passion. They play with both simple and obvious tactics – kick to Brian To’o, offload at every opportunity – but they execute poorly, like they have not analysed the strengths and weaknesses of their opposites. The Maroons will need to throw the kitchen sink at Wayne Bennett.
These are dark and dangerous times for State of Origin. And they will remain that way as long as the Maroons are struggling.