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MIKE COLMAN: State of Origin is SOFT, over-commercialised and a victim of the woke brigade

The worst thing that could happen to State of Origin is for Queensland to win Game II and wrap up the series in Perth on Sunday night.

The last thing we need is another Maroons dynasty. Origin is in enough trouble as it is.

If anyone needed any convincing that the whole ‘Mate against Mate, State against State’ thing is fast running out of steam, they only had to be with me and some of my mates for Game I.

State of Origin has lost some of its edge and it is no longer the cauldron of passion it once was

State of Origin has lost some of its edge and it is no longer the cauldron of passion it once was 

Having moved from NSW to Queensland some 25 years ago, and finding myself in Sydney on Origin night, I thought it would be a good experience to soak up the atmosphere at one of the city’s biggest suburban pubs.

What atmosphere? Our little group was the only one watching the big screen TV in earnest. People might gaze over as they stood at the bar waiting for their drinks, and a few looked up when either side scored, but the interest level fluctuated slightly between nil and zero.

And this was at the former favourite watering hole of the late, great rugby league writer Mike Gibson, for crying out loud.

I’m not saying there was no interest in Sydney – a record 80,512 spectators froze their buns off at Stadium Australia on the night – but from my pub experience it seemed like people were watching it merely because it was on, like they would for the Super Bowl or NBA finals. There was precious little engagement or passion that I could see, either in the days leading up to kick-off or on the night itself.

Queensland lead the series 1-0 after winning 16-10 at Accor Stadium in Sydney on June 8

Queensland lead the series 1-0 after winning 16-10 at Accor Stadium in Sydney on June 8

The Maroons could clinch the series if they win in Perth on Sunday

The Maroons could clinch the series if they win in Perth on Sunday 

I dare say things would have been different north of the border. Queenslanders still manage to work themselves up into a lather when Origin comes around, but it is nothing like it was back in the old days when players like Wally, Alfie, Geno, Choppy, Fatty and Gilly didn’t need a surname to be instantly identifiable in any conversation from Bamaga to Ballandean.

So what’s gone awry? How did the biggest grudge match in Australian sporting history go from a cultural phenomenon to, dare I say it … a footy game?

Well, it’s like Rocky Balboa’s trainer Mickey told him in Rocky III, ‘The worst thing happened to you that could happen to any fighter – you got civilised’.

Which is what happened to Origin. It got civilised. To say nothing of over-commercialised, sold to the highest bidder and, worst of all, woke.

Optus Stadium in Perth will host Game 2, despite Western Australia not having an NRL team

Optus Stadium in Perth will host Game 2, despite Western Australia not having an NRL team

Take Sunday night’s game in Perth. Read that last word again. Perth. Could someone please tell me why a game that owes its very existence to the deep-seated rivalry between the residents of two eastern states is being played over 4000kms away on the other side of the country?

Apart from government money I mean.

It was bad enough when the people entrusted with running the game got into bed with the Victorian government and started playing it in Melbourne, where the one-eyed locals went along solely so they could compare it unfavourably to their beloved homegrown code of football, but at least they have an NRL team down there.

When they started selling it off to Adelaide and Perth, they gave up any pretense that they were trying to propagate the game. It was a cash grab, pure and simple.

The All Blacks and the Wallabies have faced off in Hong Kong and Japan in recent years

The All Blacks and the Wallabies have faced off in Hong Kong and Japan in recent years

Greg Norman has led the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf breakaway

Greg Norman has led the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf breakaway

What’s next, they follow the lead of the Wallabies and All Blacks and play it in Hong Kong, like they did with the Bledisloe Cup?

Better still, maybe they could get Greg Norman to organise some Saudi billions for an Origin decider in Riyadh.

I’m not joking. Mark my words. If there are enough zeroes on the contract, they’ll do it.

Not that I think the Saudis would be too impressed with what they’d be getting.

Queenslanders remain passionate about Origin, but interest is fading away in NSW

Queenslanders remain passionate about Origin, but interest is fading away in NSW

But the game no longer has characters like Queensland legend Wally Lewis

But the game no longer has characters like Queensland legend Wally Lewis

The powder-puff Origin that is being trotted out these days is a far cry from the biff-bash-barge that had spectators on the edge of their seats back in the 1980s and 90s.

Now in no way am I saying that we want a rerun of Les Boyd breaking Darryl Brohman’s jaw in 1983 or Mal Meninga spreading Michael O’Connor’s nose all over his face in 1991, but a bit of fire and brimstone wouldn’t go astray.

The enormous early success of Origin was based on a feeling of heart-quickening anticipation. No-one knew what was going to happen next. Would Mark Geyer take someone’s head off? Would Gorden Tallis have a brain snap?

I can tell you right now how Sunday night’s game will be played. Kick off, take it up through the forwards for five tackles, kick wide and hope your big, tall winger outjumps their big, tall winger. Repeat for 80 minutes and then have ex-players in Channel 9 blazers discuss incessantly for next four hours.

The interstate rivalry is a far more sanitised affair these days than it was in the past

The interstate rivalry is a far more sanitised affair these days than it was in the past

Scenes like Paul Gallen throwing haymakers against Nate Myles are no longer tolerated

Scenes like Paul Gallen throwing haymakers against Nate Myles are no longer tolerated

And Queensland firebrand Gorden Tallis (left) would have to tone down his aggression

And Queensland firebrand Gorden Tallis (left) would have to tone down his aggression

Back in the old days it was like being on a scary ride at a theme park, and the best thing was, the officials were in on it. Geyer reckoned he was given carte blanche by league boss John Quayle to run amok in Game II, 1991, and run amok he did. The picture of him and Wally Lewis standing toe to toe at half-time in the rain at the Sydney Football Stadium is one of the great Origin images.

Geyer copped an eight-week suspension after later being cited for an elbow to the head of Maroons fullback Paul Hauff, but he wasn’t sent off. Neither was Les Boyd, who spent 12 months on the sideline for breaking Brohman’s jaw.

Old-timers used to say, ‘you can’t get sent off in a grand final’. The same went for Origin.

Referee Barry ‘Grasshopper’ Gomersall had an unusual but highly effective policy on players fighting. As long as the number of combatants was roughly equal on both sides and no-one came in late, he left them to it, figuring they’d eventually wear themselves out and rejoin the game.

Phil Gould (right) embodied the spirit of the Origin rivalry for New South Wales

Phil Gould (right) embodied the spirit of the Origin rivalry for New South Wales

While then-Queensland boss Paul Vautin (left) was just as passionate about the Maroons cause

While then-Queensland boss Paul Vautin (left) was just as passionate about the Maroons cause

Compare that to today’s rugby league nanny-state where referees will send a player to the sin-bin for brushing the nose of an opponent with his little finger – and if he somehow lets it go unpunished, he’s got a team of snitches up in the bunker, screaming in his ear-piece to take action.

And the players are just as spooked. Before Game II in 1995 Maroons coach Paul Vautin told his team they should all start throwing punches when one of them called the signal word, ‘Queenslander’. When he asked who wanted to be the one to start the fight, every one of them put up his hand, including the trainer.

If current coaches Brad Fittler or Billy Slater suggested the same thing to their players these days, half would ring their managers for advice and the others would need counselling.

Which brings me to another point. Brad Fittler and Billy Slater. This is the best we can do? I’m not saying they can’t coach, but they’re too nice. And the players are just as vanilla as they are. Where are the insults, the sledges, the sneaky tricks? Where are the characters?

New South Wales coach Brad Fittler isn't as inspiring as his Blues predecessors

New South Wales coach Brad Fittler isn’t as inspiring as his Blues predecessors

And the same can be said of his Queensland counterpart Billy Slater (right)

And the same can be said of his Queensland counterpart Billy Slater (right) 

What we need is a return to the days of Gus Gould storming down the tunnel before the game is over or telling the press, ‘We weren’t beaten. They just scored more points than us.’ We need King Wally and Paul Gallen being loved and despised in equal measures on either side of the border. We need Benny Elias shooting his mouth off and Gordie Tallis rag-dolling Brett Hodgson over the sideline.

While we’re at it, we need to stop playing the games anywhere but in Sydney or Brisbane to get the concept back to its roots. If anyone from anywhere else wants to watch, let them find a TV or buy a plane ticket.

We also need to stop playing at Suncorp Stadium where the NSW players feel too comfortable and Stadium Australia, which is without question the worst venue to watch team sport in the world.

Origin needs to be played at a ground that has a grassy hill. NSW has Leichhardt Oval which fits the bill, but the Queensland government might have to bite the bullet and recreate Lang Park on a spare plot of ground somewhere.

No half measures, an exact replica complete with visitors’ dressing room underneath the wooden grandstand so the crowd can bang their feet on the roof before kick-off.

To restore some of the Origin passion, the series should be played only in Sydney and Brisbane

To restore some of the Origin passion, the series should be played only in Sydney and Brisbane

Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane will host the third game of the series next month

Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane will host the third game of the series next month 

They should bring back the team bus rides down Caxton Street too, so the lunatic fans can pour out of the pubs and cheer the Maroons and abuse the Blues.

Laurie Daley was just 19 years old when he debuted for the Blues at Lang Park in 1989 and he couldn’t believe what happened when the NSW bus made its way down Caxton St.

‘The bus couldn’t move because so many of them were in front of it,’ he told me. ‘Then they started rocking it from side to side. They were throwing cans and screaming at us.

‘You looked out and the look on their faces was like nothing I’d ever see. There was no fun it, no laughs. I was like, it’s a game of footy fellas, it’s not life and death, but I was wrong. To them it was life and death. They hated us. If they’d had machine guns, they would have shot us.’

Referees no longer let the game flow during Origin matches as they used to in the past

Referees no longer let the game flow during Origin matches as they used to in the past

Which is not to say that Origin should be all blood and guts. Over the years it has produced some of the best games of rugby league ever played.

It just needs to get back the balance of aggression and skill that made it what it was. Right now, it is at dire risk of becoming a politically correct cash cow, to say nothing of an over produced TV talkfest.

How about just televising the 80 minutes of game time and forget about the endless interviews and panel discussions?

How about taking a leaf out of the Grasshopper’s book and telling the refs to stick their whistle in the back pocket?

How about letting the coaches and players shoot their mouths off and not worry about upsetting anyone’s delicate sensibilities?

How about getting down and dirty like in the old days?

How about giving us back our Origin?

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