To describe rugby league’s annual State of Origin series as pedestrian or predictable in response to Queensland’s ten victories from the past 11 events would be selling the series well short. Despite the Maroons’ current dominance, each year this interstate battle throws up more and more questions, which become obssessed over in the intense glare of the Origin spotlight.
The ability to generate mass intrigue in the great unknown is perhaps State of Origin's greatest strength – not knowing what magic and drama this annual stateagainst-state smash-fest will produce next is what keeps us all, no matter our favourite flavour of sport, coming back. Here are five such unknowns ahead of the 2017 State of Origin series, and some possible answers …
This is Johnathan Thurston’s last year for the Maroons. If the Queenslanders win the 2017 series, will his ageing team-mates Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk retire from Origin alongside him?
It’s a very real possibility for this quartet, who are all approaching their mid-30s. At time of publication, Melbourne halfback Cronk was yet to commit to a Sydney club for 2018 and beyond after announcing he would be relocating to the Harbour City to be alongside his better half, TV presenter Tara Rushton.
Retirement from the NRL would see Cronk bow out of Origin as well, leaving Smith to steer the Maroon boat without the half combo he has worked with across a decade of dominance. In that event, you’d have to question Smith’s motivation for playing on in Origin. If, instead, he is looking for his fountain of youth, this would soon come in the form of an injection of fresh, eager players into the Queensland camp; there’s plenty banging on the door of coach Kevvie Walters’ office.
A series win could very well be the right time to bow out for an aging and increasingly delicate Billy Slater as well, freeing him up for another Storm premiership assault.
How will Paul Gallen’s absence affect the New South Wales Blues going forward?
As Inside Sport stated in our feature on Gallen last year, the Cronulla Sharks’ premiership-winner hasn’t been New South Wales’ best or most skilled player over the years, but he has been their most influential. Even just pulling on a jersey alongside such a determined competitor would have added a few feet at least to the spiritual stature of his team-mates.
But now that he’s gone, who will step up and be the new Gal, as it were? The Blues really don’t have another hardman quite like him to call on. Wade Graham is full of running and passion, Josh Jackson is full of intent, Tyson Frizell is pumped up but still young, while Boyd Cordner has been earmarked as a possible favourite to replace Gallen as captain for his own leadership qualities. But is he inspirational enough to lead the Blues to a series win?
Are more and more people losing interest in State of Origin because the Queensland Maroons just keep winning?
Ultimate proof that the concept is far from stale or struggling in the interest stakes can be found in the skyrocketing figures generated by Origin ticket sales and television ratings in recent times. Last year, 193,805 tickets were sold across the three matches, a Suncorp Stadium Maroons home game flanked by two matches at the Sydney Olympic Stadium. That 61,261 New South Wales fans turned up to game three, a dead rubber, after their team had already been beaten, must represent some kind of milestone of commitment to a team on the receiving end so many times.
Meanwhile, on the box, interest in the concept from living rooms and pubs has never been greater. Game one of the 2016 State of Origin series smashed all viewer records, with some four million people tuning in around the country to watch Queensland down New South Wales 6-4.
Channel Nine’s coverage blitzed the night’s viewing, with the match itself recording the highest audience figure for any State of Origin match since the competition began. At its peak that night, 4.423 million viewers had tuned in (taking into account city and regional viewers), while it averaged 3.951 million viewers across the telecast.
Is New South Wales' leadership broken? Further, have the Blues lost their spirit and pride entirely?
We put this question to their coach Laurie Daley at the end of last year. After his triumph with the Blues in 2014, Loz is facing a threepeat of series defeats (that crept up quickly, hey?) Daley responded to our query with: “I’ve always said people are entitled to their opinion, but you’d like it to be at least informed. You’d also like support, but in today’s environment most of the time social media is used in a negative way; people want to really put the boot in. We can’t help that or stop people doing that, but you’d like to think that, yeah, we’re all disappointed, but support the guys because, yes, we didn’t win but geez, you can’t be critical of the guys’ effort and how they went about it.” Sounds like the Blues’ spirit is alive and well to us. Perhaps …
How many of the emerging players who Kevvie Walters banned from the 2016 series for breaking curfew will bounce back and make their Origin debuts this year?
To recap, back in February last year, a band of would-be Origin replacements – Anthony Milford, Jarrod Wallace, Ben Hunt, Dylan Napa, Edrick Lee, Chris Grevsmuhl, Valentine Holmes and Cameron Munster – was suspended from the Queensland squad for a year for breaking curfew at an emerging Origin camp. At the time, this looked like good news for the Blues.
A year and a bit on though, and the reality is looking quite different. Possibly the best way to fire up a young Maroons prospect is to tell him he can’t play State of Origin football. The blowback is going to be severe … and NSW looks set to be on the receiving end of it. You would tip that Milford, along with Michael Morgan, is only a Thurston or Cronk injury away from being named on the bench. Napa, the hard-hitting young Rooster, is the next Nate Myles, while flying winger Valentine Holmes is an Aussie rep but is yet to make his Origin debut. Only a matter of time for most of this crew ...