Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Doubts raised on NZ Origin

The State of Origin passion and rivalry between theQueensland Maroons and the New South Wales Blues would be hard to replicate in New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images
The State of Origin passion and rivalry between theQueensland Maroons and the New South Wales Blues would be hard to replicate in New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images

The Kiwi 'State of Origin' concept has been put on hold until 2014 - but some leading figures in the game are yet to be convinced it is the right solution to alleviate a player drain or captivate fans.

In response to growing fears over the lure of the Australian interstate series for Kiwi players based across the Ditch, the New Zealand Rugby League has proposed its own series to offer an alternative pathway as well as some financial reward.

The NZRL plan has centred around an Auckland vs the rest of the country scenario. On the field, it would create some exciting rivalries - the Auckland side could feature Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran, Steve Matai and Matt Duffie; those in the Rest of New Zealand jerseys could include Benji Marshall, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Adam Blair and Ben Matulino.

Such a match could also double as a Kiwi trial.

But questions remain over whether there is enough inter-city rivalry to create the genuine animosity and passion that exists between New South Wales and Queensland and if there would be sufficient interest to sustain a series.

"You can't just transplant a concept and expect it to work as a reactionary measure," says Warriors veteran Micheal Luck. "It's like they have said, 'We are losing Kiwis to Origin so we decided to start our own one'.

"But is there going to be the market for it? Is it going to generate revenue to pay the players?

"I'd love to see it work but you have to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, with the right set-up and structure behind it.

"State of Origin has been bred on 30 years of bitter rivalry. Just to transplant a concept, cross your fingers and hope for the best - I don't know if it would work."

Warriors coach Brian McClennan agrees. "As an idea, [Auckland vs the rest of the country] doesn't really grab me. Maybe it is one of those things that when it happens, it might grow on us. I understand and respect why the NZRL are trying to do it but it doesn't excite me that much."

NZRL high performance manager Tony Kemp admits matching Origin is a big ask.

"We know we are competing with 30 years of history and an amazing legacy. We don't want to introduce something that won't stand the test of time - that's why we are focussed on getting the structure and set up just right."

The concept can be problematic, illustrated by the AFL experience. Australian Rules Football is a genuine nationwide sport across Australia and teams such as the West Coast Eagles and Adelaide Crows won the AFL title in the 1990s, taking the holy grail out of Victoria.

There was a simmering resentment between the old Victorian Football League and the expansion clubs in the south, west and east, sparking a great rivalry between Victoria and the rest.

The AFL had started interstate matches in the 1970s but, after peaking in the 1990s, the series was over by 2000 because clubs were increasingly reluctant to release players.

This seems a major stumbling point. Asking 16 NRL clubs to release 36 star players for up to three extra games will always be problematic and could lead to players being absent through "injuries", only for the ailment to clear up for club duty.

"Clubs will act in their own self-interest and you can't blame them for that," says Luck. "They need to put a winning footy side on the field and with key players out, that makes it harder. It wouldn't surprise me if they heard about another game and were against it."

Former Kiwis and Manly coach Graham Lowe feels a need for some kind of New Zealand-based series but doesn't think that the present concept is the right one.

"You need to come up with a hook," says Lowe, who was Queensland Origin coach in 1991-92. "A key ingredient to the initial State of Origin success was the unique competitiveness between the Blues and the Maroons.

"That intense rivalry does not exist in New Zealand and never has. The Auckland versus the Rest concept has been a proven failure in both league and rugby."

Lowe's alternative is a Pasifika selection vs a New Zealand All-Stars side, which would feature the best Polynesian players against the rest.

"Players of Pacific Island heritage are now monopolising many areas of the game," says Lowe, "and this would be an ideal format to pitch non-Pasifika players against them."

The Pasifika team would be selected from players with a Pacific Island heritage who have not played State of Origin or for Australia. The New Zealand team would be comprised of Maori and European New Zealanders.

A key point of difference in Lowe's proposal is the inclusion of some non-NRL players, pulled from New Zealand's club competition.

"The day of the bolter - the kid who comes from nowhere - is gone but it doesn't need to be," says Lowe, who advocates two 'amateur' players per team.

"I'm a big believer in fairytales and they could rise to the occasion. Obviously they wouldn't have the conditioning of an NRL player but in the right environment, they could compete in a one-off game."

Lowe would play the match on the same weekend as the season-opening NRL All Stars vs Indigenous match, increasing to a three-match series from 2018 onwards.

The NZRL is pressing ahead with a Kiwi junior origin contest next year and CEO Jim Doyle believes the new Australian Rugby League Commission will back the overall proposal.

- Herald on Sunday

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