Solving under strength NRL matches during Origin

How on earth do we solve the weekends of under strength NRL during Origin? Can we even do it? And will the broadcasters play ball?

Well intentioned theories are emanating with abandon from an increasingly broad-minded NRL community that State of Origin should follow the Lions Tests model.

If you think about it, it would solve a couple of problems such as under strength teams fielded during the Origin period, and assist with player workload and burnout. But does it really solve the problem in the context of a billion dollar business, where that ‘business’ (ie. Broadcaster) might see very little problem at all because it’s all about revenue to them?

Let’s assume fans have something to do with this for while …

I like the fact that cherry-picking the best processes from other sports is catching on, even if we do still have a running clock when the ball goes out, or restart at the 20m line after a kick from half way goes dead in goal. Baby steps, I guess …

But if you’re like me, you’re already mourning the impending passing of the State of Origin series. I can already feel a sense foreboding about this last match (being  NSW supporter) that usually precedes a deep disappointment that will last for weeks. I can’t be sure, but it has happened the last seven years at any rate.

On top of that, the NRL season has already passed its half way mark and we are on the downhill slide to the finals.

Now, the finals are a hoot, and always have the adrenalin flying. However, the first Monday without football, followed by dropping the Friday match, culminating in only a couple of games on the weekend, is enough to drive me into the understanding and compassionate  arms of the nearest Mojito.

Simply put, NRL fans like more, not less. And since we don’t get nearly enough, we never even remotely approach the law of diminishing returns!

So, talking about standalone weekends for Origin leaves me a little flat, and three weekends in a row with no NRL sucks the air out of me completely. So what are the options?

The Current system – 3 week Origin gap, players unavailable for NRL

This system is the whole reason we’re having this debate, so clearly it isn’t quite what everybody wants. Under strength matches take away a certain edge from games, and can often affect a team’s run to the finals when the absence of key personnel are the difference between a win and a loss.

There is also a minor problem associated with For & Against. Clearly, losing a match you would ordinarily win were you at full strength means your For & Against drops instead of climbs. I discount results like the Storm’s capitulation on the weekend, because even an under strength side shouldn’t have lost by 39 points, but for teams fighting to reach the top eight, it could be material.

Current system variation – 2 week Origin gap, players unavailable for NRL

The current system, along with its existing drawbacks, is also quite extended. A full seven weeks between games 1 & 3 is regarded by many as too long. Is this why the Game 3 build up was lower key, I wonder?

More importantly, it spreads the under strength matches over too long a period.

So perhaps we can shorten it to 1-week on, 1-week off?

This way, the series is over in five weeks, the passion is never allowed to fall from fever-pitch, and the NRL season can resume at full strength sooner.

Both teams can have their extended camp prior to Game 1, and rejoin camp immediately after their club matches in between Origins.

In both these cases, the NRL must be careful with its draw. It simply cannot make the schoolboy error again of last year’s Grand Finalists playing a match without their best players.

Suspending the NRL for Origin

There are a couple of variations of this model.

The first is that the NRL competition is suspended for a 3-week period and Origin is played on three consecutive standalone weekends. This is the Lions model alluded to above, which also saw the Super 15 rugby season suspended to accommodate it. Importantly, this happens only once every 12 years rather than yearly, placing far less burden on the normal progress of a season.

The variation to this is the Bellamy system, a 10-day gap between Origin matches (two Wednesdays and a middle Sunday game), also with NRL suspended.

The problem with the Bellamy method over the Lions method is that, while it still covers three weekends without any NRL, there is a weakened round prior to Game 1, and a short turn around after Game 3.

And the problem with both models is that the season will need to be lengthened by three weeks to accommodate Origin. Starting the season even earlier runs into the back of the cricket season and is too hot, while ending later runs into the beginning of the cricket season. Neither is ideal.

Broadcasting rights and ‘make up’ games

Now that the NRL has signed its soul over to a billion dollar broadcasting rights agreement, there is very little wiggle room to pull the NRL competition to a shuddering halt for three weeks, Origin or no Origin.

TV and radio would be aghast at having the plug pulled from their NRL coverage for such a length of time, particularly channel 9 who are severely in debt as it is, and who have budgeted for the increased revenues and exposure that the NRL and Origin series collectively bring them.

Both parties could come to an arrangement like responsible adults, but what are their options?

‘Filler’ games like City-Country, or International games between Tonga and Samoa, and possibly including New Zealand as a tri-series, don’t have the same drawing and viewer power as the regular NRL, and more importantly, aren’t as friendly to the networks in terms of the advertising and sponsorship dollar. They also cannot hope to fill the void in terms of numbers of matches.

Then again, if we are having 4-game NRL rounds already, is it worth considering?

Further, Great Britain (a poor option I’ve heard floated) is unlikely to want to make a yearly tour around the world for a couple of matches that don’t include Australia, and which weaken the Super League at the same time.

Playing a couple of Tests against Australia would sweeten this option (for them), but not only are we back where we started with players unavailable for NRL games, but it’s hard to see them doing this every year. It could become very boring, very quickly – for everyone.

For broadcasters, it’s a case of ‘show me the money’ to make up for lost revenues (as Steve Mascord has noted) or moving forward with the NRL which, even in a weakened state for a short time, still pays the bills.

Any other options?  Bueller…?

There is a general distaste for Monday Night Football (MNF), but what if MNF were to be State of Origin? I think that would change the equation.

And not on a 3-week schedule, but played fornightly?

The advantages of a system like this are that it is somewhat more compressed than the current 3-week gap, and that a full round of NRL could be played the week prior to Origin.

Of course, we will still have some teams weakened during the NRL round immediately preceding the Monday Origin match, but it also allows Origin players the best part of a full week to recover for the next weekend’s club schedule.

If player burnout is part of any equation to advance the game, as it should be, then this seems a far more sensible approach.

Amending the Bye system

Because standalone weekends require a suspension of the NRL season, and therefore a longer season (we don’t want NRL teams playing less than 24 games, we actually prefer more), the option in this case is simply to eradicate the two Bye rounds.

Given we still have the antiquated and quite useless system of providing two competition points for each Bye (meaning constant adjustments need to be made to gauge the true progress of a team),  maybe this amendment will prove too difficult. I hope not.

The three Origin weekends would therefore require just the one extra round to be created (now that the Byes have been taken out).

Or, only the first two State of Origin matches could be scheduled as standalone fixtures, with the 3rd incorporating the resumption of the NRL season proper.

Any conclusions?

Commercial realities mean that we are likely to have to accept under strength matches some of the time. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the worst option in the world, and it’s not like players aren’t rested prior to the finals anyway. It’s probably best not to get too dogmatic about football matches.

My own preferred option in this case is to move Origin to Monday nights to crown the week of NRL and allow players sufficient time to recover before backing up.

The second best option (in my view) is to have two standalone weekends (covering Brisbane and Sydney on rotation) with the NRL suspended and Byes eradicated (Ed. moved to common weekends rather than spread out, just to be clear). The 3rd game in Melbourne (neutral territory) would then sit at the back end of a full NRL round.

I’m sure I’ve missed something ….

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2 thoughts on “Solving under strength NRL matches during Origin

  1. Easiest option from a scheduling point of view is to have three stand alone weekend Origin matches and extend the season by one week. All teams have three byes during Origin weekends. One pre-season match is sacrificed, player’s union would push for this I’m sure.

    Drawbacks, as you alluded, are that Channel Nine would never do something for the “good of the game” unless there was a comparable “good for the bank balance” proposition. I doubt that second tier test matches between pacific nations, Under 20 State of Origin and City Country matches would provide enough of a financial pay-off for Nine to oblige.

    There is also the timeless problem with football fans crippling fear of change. Rule change? END OF THE WORLD! Expansion? END OF THE WORLD! Grand Final moved to a twilight timeslot? END OF THE WORLD! Football fans being deprived of club matches for three weeks per year? You get the drift. I would guess that most football fans rarely watch more than one or two games per week – their own team and another game of interest. They’re already missing at least two weeks of their own team with the current bye system – and likely more without pay TV.

    If the NRL has the balls to stand up to Nine, which I highly doubt considering the monstrous amount of money they throw at the game, they’d find a reasonable solution pretty bloody quickly.

    On another point, interesting record level TV ratings coming out of Origin III last night. Based on the Oztam ratings data and ABS population data (2012) it appears that Sydney-siders just don’t care as much about Origin as Brisbane-ites – 8 years of pain proving too much for some?

    Sydney – 1.165m viewers = 25.0% of population
    Brisbane – 0.865m viewers = 39.5% of population
    Melbourne – 0.464m viewers = 10.9% of population
    Adelaide – 0.095m viewers = 7.4% of population
    Perth – 0.110m viewers = 5.9% of population

    • Ch9 are in too much debt to think altruistically. The planned float has even been put back, meaning the private equity owners can’t rip out cash as soon as they had hoped.

      I had a quick look at OzTAM and then got distracted. It looked to me that FNF attracted about 1m viewers, while each Fox game was about 300k, give or take & depending on the game.

      I didn’t go as far as the ch9 Sunday game. But even if it rated like FNF, total viewers are still way below Origin. Deprived of NRL, it wouldn’t surprise me to see even MORE viewers for Origin. Ir. a more marketable, exclusive event that generates even more cash for ch9

      With 24 full strength rounds, maybe they generate more per match too.

      You’d think they would contemplate it …

      Sent from my iPhone

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