Just as COVID has affected the rest of the competition, and indeed the world, in 2020, it is set to affect the Origin series too.
We still don’t know where the matches are going to be played, just that they will be on three consecutive Wednesdays in November. The first match is slated to take place just ten days after the grand final on October 25.
Normally played before a parochial crowd, is it unlikely we will get anything close to that this season. With crowds carefully capped during the regular season, and the situation in Victoria, there is virtually no chance we will see the sell-out crowds of series past.
While the timing and schedule of Origin always seems to be a topic of discussion, this is hardly the perfect model for our showpiece event. But with the world the way it is at the moment, the NRL just needed to get the series scheduled at whatever cost, to maximise the already reduced revenue of this season.
It is hard to see at this stage who this scheduling is going to benefit more as the season wears on. We have a pretty clear idea of the NRL teams that will be there at the pointy end, with only a couple of sides towards the bottom of the eight in any real danger of missing out. Some players are going to be asked to go right through to grand final day, and then back up ten days later. On the other hand, others will be having more than a month off before playing Origin.
For those going all the way to the grand final, Origin is a big ask. Normally players get ten or so days to prepare for Origin 1 after being selected, however that is normally ten rounds into the competition, not off the back of a finals series. By the time we get to grand final day there are normally a number of players who are managing niggling injuries among the regular fatigue of a long season. Then we have the celebrations or commiserations that come with the result of the grand final.
How this will all work for Brad Fittler and Kevin Walters is intriguing too. By the end of the regular season they would have a pretty good idea of their first choice side, regardless of form in the finals.
Picking more players whose teams have bowed out for the season represents an opportunity to get them into camp earlier and freshen them up while keeping them fit. Relying on others to not just stay fit, but also handle fatigue, could prove to be a gamble. Players often go into surgery straight after the season concludes to maximise their recovery time for next season. Fittler and Walters will be having to carefully consider who they pick in extended squads so that they don’t rule any players out this way.
A case could be made at the moment that the Blues have more players set to go deep into the finals than the Maroons, particularly in key positions. The top eight teams as it stands are littered with potential Blues candidates. It is a great luxury for Brad Fittler to have so many potential players in such great form. Nathan Cleary has been sensational at Penrith, Luke Keary looks set to finally debut with his performances for the Roosters, and James Tedesco is as consistent as ever. Jack Wighton is keeping the Raiders in contention and Reagan Campbell-Gillard has been resurgent at the Eels. It’s the tip of the iceberg with plenty of potential Blues enjoying good seasons.
For the Maroons, the form – of lack thereof – for some key players is cause for real concern. Kalyn Ponga is the only genuine option at fullback, and they better count on him being fit and firing. Likewise with Cameron Munster in the halves, but that is where the good news for Queensland stops in the spine.
Corey Norman and Ben Hunt played halfback and hooker respectively in the decider last year. Anthony Milford and Michael Morgan have also featured in the halves in series gone by. None of them are in the kind of form you would want if Origin was going to be played tomorrow. Norman and Hunt have been shuffled around the Dragons team to no avail, with the Dragons out of finals contention.
Milford as one of the highest paid Broncos has failed to spark them this year, while Morgan has battled injury and now faces propping up a struggling Cowboys. Daly Cherry-Evans is likely to be the halfback at this stage and while he isn’t solely responsible for the Sea Eagles dip in form, he isn’t having the impact you would like as a Maroons fan either.
You get the sense that at the moment the Blues team could virtually pick itself, and has some depth to it, but they are probably going to be playing deeper in the season. The Maroons however are really going to struggle in some areas to pick a competitive side, but may have the luxury of a better preparation.
Everyone gets up for Origin. It is a long way away, and some of these players for both sides will rise for the occasion. The story of last year’s series tells us that with both teams lifting themselves off the canvas at points. The Maroons drew first blood in Game 1, as underdogs and had two games in hand to win the series.
The Blues made wholesale changes in key positions, and had to win in Perth to keep the season alive, and did so with a commanding victory that put them in the box seat heading to Sydney. In that game alone, the Blues looked home only for the Maroons to storm back into the contest and nearly force extra time. In the case of either team, both looked incredibly likely to win the series at some point.
In any case, this Origin series is intriguing. Sides are pencilled in for a reason, and with so much footy still to play, anything can change in the next few weeks. At the moment though, the Blues appear to have their key players in better form. What the build-up already suggests is that Origin needs to stay where it was after this weird old season we are having.
To ask the players to back up after a long season for our showpiece event, so soon after the grand final, is too much. That combined with trying to manage players who are all in very different stages of their season, or being forced to make decisions between surgery and potential representative honours, is just as significant.
It is imperfect in the middle of the season, but it has lasted so long because it is the best option we have. It spices up the depths of winter, and is always an enthralling storyline. In front of sell-out crowds, and with record TV audiences, some things in our game don’t need to be tampered with too much.
That being said, in a year with so much disruption, it will be another welcome distraction to have Origin in November.