Early in my teaching career, at a Campbelltown high school in the mid 2000’s, I taught Year 10 on a Wednesday afternoon. Three times a year, this would be an especially challenging task – and one from which I would learn a valuable lesson. As one of the more experienced teachers on staff sagely advised: “Teach them in 10 minute bursts. There’s no way they can concentrate on something that’s not State of Origin for longer than that.” Ten minutes into my last period class on the Wednesday of Origin 1, it was clear that she was right.
I now teach in Geelong, and late last year while on yard duty, I stumbled across a group of Year 11 boys playing rugby league at lunchtime. As I was walking over to remind them that they needed to turn tackle footy into touch, one of them kicked off. The ball bounced right out of the hands of his opponent and rolled a few metres forward, before butter-fingers picked up the ball and advanced towards the kicking team. I laughed derisively, before finding myself teaching 17-year-olds what a knock-on was. They didn’t care, of course: as they continued, the next knock-on was responded to with a beautifully phrased “Play on!”
In fact, a Geelong school has come to be a hilarious place to experience various versions of rugby. Watching a PE teacher try to explain touch footy to a bunch of Year 9’s certainly forces guys like me – who grew up in rugby league territory – to remind ourselves that we’d played more touch footy at lunchtime during our first semester of kindergarten than most Victorian teenagers have played in their lifetimes. Throw a dart in one of my classes tomorrow: you’ll hit a kid who has no idea as to any of the differences between league and union.
And yet, Melbourne is hosting the State of Origin.
On Offsiders last weekend, Gerard Whateley responded to the notion that Origin is “wasted” on Melbourne: “It becomes a television game, because whichever stadium you play it in is full, but most people are taking it in in their state from their homes and from pubs. So…absolutely where you play it…doesn’t probably matter because of how it’s partaken.”
Had Barrie Cassidy received such a comment from a politician, surely he would have thrown a follow-up question.
“Of course more people are watching on TV than are in the crowd,” Cassidy should have responded. “Name a sporting event shown on TV for which that isn’t true!”
Come on, Mr Whateley: there are more Victorian kids in my classes who care about the FA Cup Final or the NBA Playoffs than who care about State of Origin rugby league. And you could host the FA Cup Final at 11:00pm Eastern Standard Time at the MCG (so that it would be on at the right time for TV viewing in England), and you’d fill the stadium. “But don’t worry,” you’d argue to our Pommie friends, “you’re most likely just watching it on TV, so who cares if it’s played somewhere outside of its traditional home?”
Returning from this ridiculous hypothetical, one must simply remember that sport is still about the live spectacle – for supporters and players in the stadium itself, and also for those who are caught up in the magic of the host city as fans leave the gates and make the slow journey home.
As many kids as possible from New South Wales and Queensland who grow up loving their rugby league above all else should be able to make “the pilgrimage” to a State of Origin game as regularly as they want to throughout their lifetimes.
And players who have the honour of representing their state on what is regarded to be the biggest stage in their sport should have that honour as often as possible in front of the most passionate, knowledgeable crowds their sport has to offer.
Every year, AFL folk argue that “true fans” of the game are missing out on tickets to the Grand Final, because “corporate types” take too many of the tickets. They’re not wrong. But for those same people to argue that one of the year’s biggest games of rugby league should be taken from Brisbane or Sydney and transplanted into Melbourne is both counterintuitive and disappointing. Yes, there are “true fans” of rugby league in Melbourne. But many more “true fans” are able to experience the spectacle that is Origin when the games are played in the towns which truly care.
The towns where the kids can hardly sit still on Wednesday afternoon.