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MICHAEL HAGAN: Earlier Origin kick-off time, keep mid-year Tests

Rugby league is in a great position to reap massive rewards from representative football if it invests fully in international games and makes a few tweaks to the State of Origin format. 

Now that we’re thankfully free of all the travel restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic and we’ve got a World Cup at the end of the year, it’s time to start thinking about the future of rep footy.

If the NRL and International Rugby League can get on the same page to plan out a schedule for the next 5-10 years, the sky’s the limit.

There is so much potential for growth, in men’s and women’s rugby league, not just from nations that have done well in recent years like Tonga and Samoa, but also with Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Greece, Lebanon, France and other emerging nations.

Here’s my checklist of ideas which I’d love to see happen in the near future.

Nathan Cleary Origin

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Make Origin kick-off times earlier

The TV ratings for Sunday’s game in Perth were the best in three years and I think a lot of that has to do with the 7.50pm kick-off time rather than waiting around for 8.10 and often later for the game to start.

I can understand the commercial arrangements about squeezing in as many advertisements into the pre-game show and how Channel 9 is keen to get as much bang for their bucks after splashing out so much money on the broadcast rights.

Irrespective of the details of the broadcast deals, in our history we know it never starts at the kick-off time at 8pm. Not sure many other professional sporting organisations around the world work that way, which is quite bizarre.

But it’s so much easier, particularly for parents with young kids who want to watch the game, if the start time is brought forward. We talk about being kid friendly and engaging families, that’s the way to do it. 

Surely we can generate enough revenue prior to a 7.50pm kick-off and it is bewildering that for 42 years we’ve had to put up with that.

Daniel Tupou tackled in Origin

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Keep Rep Round as part of the schedule

The NRL has said it’s getting rid of Representative Round next year and I think that’s a mistake.

I can see that they need to redo the draw because there’s going to be 17 teams with the Dolphins coming in and that presents challenges because there’ll be one team having a bye every week.

And that means all three Origins will be played on a Wednesday night.

But surely there’s a way to keep the mid-year Tests on the schedule to be played before one of the Origin weekends.

Jason Taumalolo charges forward for Tonga against New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

I’d love to see Rep Round run the week before Origin I. That way, players like Daniel Tupou could decide whether they wanted to represent NSW in Origin or play for the nation of their heritage, like Tonga in his case, and then be available for state selection in the final two games.

The New Zealand vs Tonga match was a beauty last week, it should be an annual fixture.

As Kangaroos assistant coach, I’ve seen first hand the passion the Tongan fans have for watching their national team. 

When we played them in Auckland a few years ago, it was a sea of red in the stands and not only did they sing their national anthem beautifully, they then backed up and sung Advance Australia Fair better than any of us.

They were genuinely excited that the Kangaroos were playing their team. I can see why Tonga is known as The Friendly Islands, they are the nicest people you’re ever going to meet, unless they step onto the footy field, then gee whiz, they are fearsome.

The Kiwis are getting stronger also. They have to be the main rivals to Australia for favouritism at the World Cup. Joey Manu was awesome at fullback, running for 400-odd metres, that’s unheard of.

Women’s State of Origin

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Expand Women’s Origin to three games

It was a great game in Canberra on Friday night and there was a record crowd for a Women’s Origin.

The plan is for it to move to a two-game series next year and then potentially three down the track. 

That seems weird to me, it needs to be one game or three and judging by the talent in the women’s game now, there’s no doubt they could handle a three-match series.

The Women’s Origin games should remain standalones and you could even fit them into a regular NRL round by adding an extra game onto the Sunday schedule or on the weekends when there’s a public holiday Monday.

Make Kangaroo Tours part of the four-year cycle

Outside of World Cup years, there should be a Kangaroo Tour to England at least once every four years.

It will never go back to how it was with a full tour of club matches over the course of a few months but it’s important for the game in the UK to have tours against Australia, as well as hosting New Zealand and some of the other stronger teams.

The other Pacific nations can play Tests against each other while Australia is in the UK in that October-November international window.

And it needs to work both ways with England or Great Britain bringing touring teams out here like how Wayne Bennett did it a few years ago.

Bring back Prime Minister’s XIII games

These are perfect for ushering in the next generation of national team players and also a great way to spread the rugby league gospel to areas like Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Rugby league is a religion in PNG, I’ve never seen anything like the passion they have for the game when I’ve gone there. They’re also getting stronger with the Hunters being in the Queensland Cup and we need to keep supporting their growth.

More games for the Junior Kangaroos as an under-21 or under-23 team like we had against France in Wollongong in 2019 would also be worthwhile getting back on the calendar.

There are plenty of options for league’s administrators to consider in the next few years and if they choose the right ones, it can really start to kick on as an international sport.

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