Last night’s Indigenous All Stars v Maori All Stars game was an interesting beast: while the pre-game war cries were stunning (and there was a big crowd of just under 25,000), the game itself was a bit lacking.
It was clear that it was the first game of 2021; while the humid and wet Townsville night didn’t help with handling, as both teams squandered attacking chances: at one stage the Maori All Stars had over 60% possession and would have won by streets on a dry night.
Even the 10-10 draw felt flat in the Golden Point era.
While it wasn’t the “Mickey Mouse” game that some naysayers called it, at times it felt like a glorified trial and lacked the usual intensity, especially with the new rules being used for the first time.
Despite these reservations, the All Stars game deserves its place on the NRL calendar as the players care deeply about representing their heritage, and after trying out the NRL All Stars and World All Stars, the Indigenous v Maori All Stars format feels like its the right balance.
So, is there room to extend it and give it the full attention it deserves?
MAKE IT A TWO-GAME SERIES
Benji Marshall has called for the game to be played in New Zealand, so why not make it a longer series?
Start with a two-game pre-season series: one game in Australia (preferably Queensland, where the fans have flocked to it), and a return game in New Zealand. Two games are enough to give the series more meaning, but it’s not so long that it interrupts the NRL clubs’ preparations. In the event of a drawn series, the winner of the previous series will retain the Arthur Beetson Trophy.
MAKE IT A FULL-BLOWN PACIFIC SERIES
One of the highlights of the rep round are the Pacific Tests between Tonga, Samoa, PNG, and Fiji. So why not include the Indigenous and Maori All Stars into the mix? To give the series the attention it deserves, suspend the NRL for three weeks before each Origin game, and have the extended six-team Pacific series on the weekends before Origin. Spilt the six teams into two groups of three, with each team playing two group games before a final between the group winners.
GROUP A: Samoa, Indigenous All Stars, Maori All Stars
GROUP B: Tonga, Fiji, PNG
Round One: Samoa v Indigenous All Stars, Tonga v Fiji.
Round Two: Maori All Stars v Samoa, PNG v Tonga.
Round Three: Indigenous All Stars v Maori All Stars, Fiji v PNG.
Final: WINNER GROUP A v WINNER GROUP B.
The only issue with this concept is the Indigenous All Stars may be weakened due to Origin commitments, though by contrast it’d give players on the verge of Origin some decent footy and the chance to push for selection.
MAKE IT AN END-OF-SEASON CELEBRATION
While some conservative NRL coaches are worried about injuries in a one-off pre-season game (Canberra fans won’t forget Jarrod Croker’s injury while playing for the World All Stars in 2017; he was out for the month, Canberra started slowly without him and missed the finals), that problem is eliminated by moving it to October, where a two- to three-game All Stars series could double as a warm up for international footy.
MAKE IT A NINES SERIES
This is a left-field one, but it could work.
Have a three-game Indigenous All Stars v Maori All Stars Nines series, played over one weekend. The short-form concept means you could fit all three games into an evening, and include the Women’s All Stars series too.
THE PACIFIC NINES
To make the Nines concept even better, include the Pacific teams from above and turn it into a proper weekend carnival. It’d be a blast to watch the Indigenous All Stars and Maori All Stars players stretch their wings in the shorter format with some the best Pacific players. Again, the Women’s version could be included for even more footy.