When’s the Best Time to Play Origin?

With Peter V’Landys announcing that State of Origin May be a permanent end-of-season fixture should it “rate the roof off”, let’s examine the best time to play Origin.

Firstly, let’s rule out pre-season, as February-March is reserved for trial games in country areas, the Indigenous All-Stars game, and the Nines.

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While it’s hard to judge, as 2020 will be the first end-of-season Origin, there is precedence with Test footy, which is mainly played in October and November. While some argue the best players will be tired after a long season for a high-intensity Origin series, the same players are usually involved in Test footy. For players from bottom eight teams (or ones who are still angry after being knocked out of the finals), a post-season Origin gives them a chance to finish the year on a high. From a broadcast point-of-view, it fills the awkward sporting vacuum between the end of the NRL/AFL grand finals, and the start of the International cricket season. However, there will be no post-season Origin next year, as there’s a Rugby League World Cup from late October. Will a post-season Origin return in 2022?

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This is the best option, as it ensures selected players can solely focus on Origin, rather than worrying about backing up for club footy a few days later; plus it doesn’t disadvantage Origin-heavy teams by forcing them to play weaker sides for a few weeks, as well as weathering a potential July-August slump as rep players come down from the high of Origin.

The NRL has taken baby steps towards a dedicated window, with the second Origin game in 2018 and 2019 played on a Sunday night, the NRL suspended for one round, and the Women’s Origin on Friday night and the Pacific Tests filling the usual ‘Super Saturday’ slot that Fox League loves. That was set to continue this year before the NRL was halted.

Why not commit to it fully? Suspend the NRL for three weeks, and have a three-game Women’s Origin series, three weeks of Pacific Tests (either as a proper tournament or stand-alone Tests), and Origin on Sundays. Take Test cricket for example, where teams pick extended squads for back-to-back Tests: NSW and QLD could do the same, picking a 30-player squad for the three games. This would allow for all 30 players to be involved in the three-week Origin ‘bubble’, so lineups can be rotated and injuries can be quickly covered. It would also give the last few NRL rounds before Origin more meaning, as players fight for selection.

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This old format seems to be on the way out, as the intensity and importance of Origin dwarfs the NRL from late May to early July. Even with two byes, Origin-heavy teams will have at least one game without their stars. While it gives struggling teams a chance to make up some ground, it’s not the fairest method, and it affects the quality of games. It also affects broadcasters, with only four games in the split rounds before Origin.

One solution is to add a a third bye: the Origin-heavy teams can have their byes during the Origin split rounds and bank the guaranteed six points (two each game). Still, as the fixture is drawn up the previous year, assumptions are made as to which teams will be affected by Origin and when they get their byes. For example, a team with traditionally low Origin representation (like Canberra) could be scheduled to play during the Origin period (keeping their byes for later); but if they have a breakout start to the year and have a few Origin players, they’re suddenly forced to play weaker teams and risk losing vital competition points.

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The dedicated mid-season window is the best option: not only does it allow the Origin teams to fully focus on Origin, it gives the 16 NRL clubs a much-needed break to plan for the run home and manage their injury toll, and gives more exposure to Women’s Origin and the Pacific Tests, which is wonderful for rugby league’s growth. It’ll keep broadcasters happy, as there’s quality footy on the bye weekends in the lead-up to Origin.

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