The most skilful, exciting game of football I’ve ever seen was an early 1980s State of Origin game between WA and Victoria at Subiaco Oval. The game was simply at another level to an ordinary club game with every player on the ground possessed of extraordinary ability. It was if the talent around them challenged each player to reach a better level for himself.
Sadly it was one of the last State games played at this uber-level. State footy was never as popular in Victoria where the VFL already drew massive crowds, as it was in the parochial territories to its west. State of Origin, which gave back WA and SA players “stolen” from them, increased the competitiveness of those teams and the fervour of the supporters. When the West Coast Eagles and then the Crows entered the AFL, those clubs were de facto “state” football teams and the demand for State Football in WA and SA predictably fell away. One of the great disappointments of my football lifetime is that I never got to see Simon Black, Ben Cousins and Roger Kerr playing on the one team. They were all East Fremantle juniors but were too quickly snatched away by the AFL. In fact a whole generation of brilliant footballers have been denied the opportunity to play football at its highest level, and we the football public have been denied seeing them play at that level.
In the good old days, All Australian players were those players who excelled in the cauldron of interstate football. Many of these players would never have been recognised otherwise by deaf, dumb and blind “experts”. The pathetic sop of an “All Australian” team these days is supposed to represent the equivalent but falls far short. These teams are based on subjective choices made by past players and “experts” too easily influenced by talk and not by action. Perenially Victorian clubs are over represented. Living in Sydney I can tell you that the suggestions as to who might be All Australian from the Swans are often wide of the mark. Sometimes players are suggested who wouldn’t be in the top 10 at the club while others who are never mentioned would, in the heat of battle, prove themselves to be superior to the players eventually chosen.
There are three big reasons to bring back State Football. Firstly it is football at the highest level, secondly the players deserve the chance to play for their state and test themselves against the very best, thirdly the process of selecting an All Australian team would be improved if more weight was given to actual performance on the field against elite peers.
Of course there are major problems with State Football. There is an imbalance between Vic, SA and WA, and the other states. Personally I am not in favour of amalgamating the weaker States. In past Carnivals, strong played weak regardless and occasional upsets happened. It might be that this could be tried again, for now however, I suggest that NSW, Qld, Tas and NT be left out of the major carnival or be run as a parallel carnival.
The other major problem is timing. If we have State Football when should it played? The optimum time would be in the mid-year break but I’m a realist. The majority of clubs would be selfish about their players, come up with “hamstrings” and “quads” and deny them the chance to play mid-season. The difficulty with pre-season is that we don’t know at that stage who really deserve to be selected. Also, we know the game will be less intense than if played later in the year.
So here is my solution. Or at least, here is a proposition for debate.
State of Origin football should be brought back and played during the Finals! Yes, I know it sounds crazy, and it may not be perfect but hear me out. What I suggest is that State of Origin squads are chosen after the last home and away round and those players not involved in the finals begin preparations for the games. Two of the teams then play the first State of Origin game as the curtain raiser to one of the AFL finals in week one. For example WA v SA.
At the end of the first week of finals, there will be twelve eliminated AFL clubs from which to choose State players. So before week two finals, the second game is played as a curtain raiser, say Vic v SA.
After week two of the finals, two more AFL clubs are eliminated so for the next State of Origin clash their State Squad players also become available. Prior to week three of the finals, the third game is played: Vic v WA. After that game the two highest ranking States are selected to play off prior to the AFL grand final.
This should take place at the MCG, which would be fabulous and far superior to Meatloaf et al as pre-game entertainment, but if the nanny brigade refuse to allow the MCG to be used, then at an alternate venue where the AFL grand final will then be televised on the big-screen for those attending. The State Game could be televised live wherever it is played and conclude with a generous amount of time left for pre-Grand Final ceremony.
This State of Origin decider could have players from all but the two grand-final clubs involved and I believe would make for sensational football. What a curtain raiser that would be and how fitting that State Football be played on the highest stage in the land. Supporters from clubs already eliminated still have the chance to watch their heroes in action in late September. That has to be good for football.
As an example, let’s take last year’s grand-final between Hawthorn and Sydney and assume a WA v Vic curtain raiser. We could see the likes of Cotchin, Ablett, Swan and Watson against Naitanui, Sandilands, Swallow and Kerr. It would be fun to see Harry Taylor going against teammate Hawkins, and young players like Rich or Dangerfield testing themselves in front of a crowd of 100,000. Let’s face it, it may be the only time in their careers they get the opportunity. Why should great players in weak clubs be denied the chance to showcase their talents in front of a huge crowd?
I believe it would be a great spectacle and a fitting penultimate climax to a season. The All Australian side could then be chosen with an eye on who performed in the State Games and the Grand Final.
Of course, there are arguments that the second tier States could also run their State if Origin teams at the same time over the finals. Apart from the grand final there is always another game being played so maybe that can happen if it fits with the schedule of the various local competition finals played in those states. It is also possible that instead of running the State Games over four weeks it could be shortened to two with a round robin followed by the Grand Final. And if the Grand Final timeslot was pushed back by a couple of hours, wouldn’t this be even more perfect as a curtain-raiser?
Whatever the fine detail, I say let’s see the best possible football at the best time of the year for everyone, and do away with silly pre-grand final entertainment forever.