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What if? Rugby league’s sliding door moments – Part II


It could be argued that many games of rugby league hinge on a few key moments: a dropped ball with the line wide open, a missed field goal or, according to most fans, a refereeing decision – or two, or three.

If we cast our gaze a little wider than this, we can identify other sliding doors moments that may have changed the very nature of rugby league in Australia and around the world. In this second instalment, here are a selection of such moments and some brief comments on what might have happened, relating to State of Origin and player power.

What if State of Origin had never taken hold?

State of Origin is a strange beast standing astride the Australian footballing landscape. In some ways it has pushed rugby league in Australia forward, but in others it has stifled the international game and impacted the integrity of the NRL.

What if NSW had not legalised poker machines, or Queensland had?

The primary source of the growing imbalance between the NSW and Queensland rugby league landscape was the introduction of poker machines in one state but not the other. The NSWRL in its professional form was made on the back of gambling losses.

Without this money, player salaries would not have grown to the same extent (or would have had to come from different sources) and Brisbane clubs would have retained more players and/or not gone broke trying to keep up as a tier one competition.

As a result the interstate series in its pre-Origin form would have remained more even. NSW would still win between three and four out of every five series in line with relative populations, but the interstate series would just be a three-match carnival without taking the world by storm.

Queensland may still dominate interstate football the 1980s and 2000s on the back of two golden generations of players. The Norths Devils in Brisbane are the undisputed premier club in Australia during the 2000s on the back of a dominant spine of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 12: Cameron Smith and Billy Slater of the Maroons pose with the shield as they celebrate victory during game three of the State Of Origin series between the Queensland Maroons and the New South Wales Blues at Suncorp Stadium on July 12, 2017 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Player movements flow in both directions across the border.

Brisbane never enters the Sydney competition. Instead, as proposed in 1984, the premiers of Brisbane and Sydney fight out a three-match Super Bowl at the end of each season. Over time this expands to a Champions League comprising the top four sides from each competition.

The 2021 final see Penrith’s stars Nathan Cleary, Dylan Edwards and northern recruit Cameron Munster, take on the financial powerhouse Redcliffe, who are relying on new signings Latrell Mitchell and Payne Haas.

In 2022 Nathan Cleary shockingly signs for Brisbane’s Wests Panthers, who begrudgingly replace their coach Anthony Griffin with Ivan Cleary to seal the deal.

Sam Walker is Nathan’s nearest competition for a Queensland jersey, plying his trade in Ipswich where he is coached by his entire family. Selwyn Cobbo creates a sensation when he transfers from the Central Queensland Capras to Canterbury.

And Australia versus England and New Zealand is still the pinnacle of rugby league.

What if the NSWRL had not agreed to play State of Origin?

(Note: this ‘What if?’ is independent of the last one – poker machines are still a thing here)

It was by no means a given in 1980 that the NSWRL were going to agree to a State of Origin-style fixture. Instead, they just play the third match under residential rules and Queenslanders John Lang and Rod Reddy lead the Blues to an easy victory in front of just 16,000 fans at Lang Park, while Arthur Beetson turns out in reserve grade for Parramatta.

In 1981 the NSWRL clubs vote to reduce the interstate fixture to a single midweek match and less than 2000 people turn up to Leichhardt Oval to see Queensland put up a fight as their young stars Wally Lewis, Chris Close and Mal Meninga start to make an impact. But nobody notices.

Nobody except the Sydney recruiters, that is. Without State of Origin crowds filling their coffers, the QRL has no money to even afford to retain their stars. Wally Lewis moves to Manly and they dominate the 1980s until Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher and Peter Jackson move to Canberra.

Big Mal Meninga with the Green Machine

Mal Meninga (Photo by Getty Images)

Gene Miles captains Western Suburbs and Mark Murray steers St George around the park. The Brisbane Rugby League becomes a second-tier competition. Without State of Origin the QRL never finds the backing to expend its state league and the entire state of Queensland becomes little more than a source of juniors for NSWRL clubs.

PNG never enter the Queensland Cup.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Redcliffe apply to join the NRL in 1987, and this time they are successful and become Queensland’s first club in the NSWRL.

What if Wally Lewis had come home from the Australian Schoolboys and stayed with rugby union?

In 1977/78 Wally Lewis toured Europe with the Australian Rugby Schoolboys side, widely considered to be the greatest schoolboys team of any code. Lewis struggled to break into a first XV that included three Ellas, Michael O’Connor and Tony Melrose.

But he enjoyed the experience and the international opportunities available in the 15-man code so much that he returns and signs with Brothers Rugby Union.

Lewis becomes the premier fly half in Queensland. Meanwhile, State of Origin makes Queensland more competitive in rugby league, winning the inaugural fixture in 1980. However without Lewis at the helm, NSW win in 1981 and take the 1982 series, with Brett Kenny starring.

State of Origin continues but never achieves the heights it has, with NSW winning three in every four series and the concept not really capturing the imagination south of the border, although the Lang Park fixtures each year are well attended. The BRL dies a slow death (see the ‘What if?’ above).

Meanwhile The Ella, Lewis, O’Connor trio lead Australian rugby to a dominant era. The little brother All Blacks do their best to keep up.

What if Queensland had lost the first two State of Origin matches?

After much fanfare, the Queensland State of Origin team run out at Lang Park in 1980 in front of 33,000 excited fans, who are rapidly silenced as the NSW side win 20-10. Steve Rogers and Graeme Eadie score tries. Young Queenslander Mal Meninga has a shocker with the boot, kicking two from seven.

In 1981 the game is held for a second time. Unfortunately for Queensland, star lock forward Wally Lewis is controversially overlooked for the more experienced Norm Carr and nobody even thinks to try him at five-eighth.

Instead, North Sydney’s Alan Smith is retained from the previous year. Mal Meninga is dropped in favour of the centre pairing of Chris Close and Graham Quinn. Lewis is selected on the bench but does not get any game time as NSW win 22-13.

NSW half Peter Sterling suffers a serious shoulder injury after a Rohan Hancock shoulder charge and is rubbed out for the season.

Newtown win the NSWRL grand final, breaking Parramatta hearts once more. Led by Parramatta’s Dennis Fitzgerald and by Bob Fulton, who was always against the concept, the NSWRL clubs vote to end the Origin experiment and return to state of residence selection criteria for all three games in 1982. It remains a midweek afterthought played in front of few spectators in Sydney.

Queensland rugby league continues to die off, however Fulton does notice Wally Lewis and thinks there might be a five-eighth in there. Lewis signs with Manly for 1982 and they win the premiership two years running.

Parramatta are still waiting for a premiership to this day. Lewis captains and stars on the 1982 Kangaroo tour and plays many years for NSW as they dominate the interstate series before reducing it to a single end-of-season exhibition match in 1989.

What if the player market had not developed into its current form and Dennis Tutty had lost his court case in 1970?

For those who are not aware, prior to Dennis Tutty having his day in the High Court of Australia, basically clubs could prevent any of their players from moving to rival clubs even after they had stopped playing for them (i.e. even sitting out a season did not break their hold on a player).

It was after Tutty won his case in the High Court that Manly and Easts raided Souths, making them the dominant sides of the 1970s and consigning the Rabbitohs to 40 years in the wilderness.

Instead, Tutty loses and Coote, Branighan and O’Neill stay with Souths, leading to a number of premierships in the 1970s. Manly and Easts continue to struggle and do not win a premiership until the 1980s and 1990s respectively.

I suspect as more money flowed into the code, this case would have been fought again, maybe in a class action by the players association and our current arrangements would have come about regardless.

What if Terry Hill had lost his court action against the draft?

So many implications. Hill plays for Easts instead of Wests but more importantly most player movements flow to the weaker clubs. The NRL look to take over junior pathways to control the draft as it expands from just transferring first graders, and we end up with AFL-style horse trading over the best youngsters in the country.

Rich clubs can no longer hoard juniors. We see a small but steady exodus to rugby union as players change codes to stay home rather than be sent to Canberra and Auckland. Cooper Cronk never plays for the Roosters. When Latrell Mitchell leaves the Roosters he ends up at the Gold Coast. Nicho Hynes plays for the Bulldogs in 2022.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

You would actually have to look at all player movements since 1991, plot where each one landed and then decided on the following year’s new results to work out the full implications here. Surely someone is on board to model this?

What if the salary cap was never introduced?

The salary cap came about in 1990, but it was no sure thing to be implemented. If it had been quashed then the rich become richer like Collingwood in the AFL, but unlike that code, there is no draft (due to the Terry Hill case above) and rich rugby league clubs can actually buy premierships. Brisbane, the Roosters and maybe a couple of others dominate the competition year after year in an EPL-style business model.

Every now and then a lesser club goes broke trying to keep up – Canberra in the early 1990s, Manly a decade later. Clubs look to the private ownership model to compete and the traditional leagues club model falls away. Investment money flows into the league and it dominates the sporting landscape, but ‘traditional’ clubs start to fall by the wayside or lose their identity as they become franchises.

Twiggy Forrest buys North Sydney wholesale and creates the Western Bears who are a powerhouse on the back of mining investment. The number of Sydney clubs starts to shrink as franchises are created in Brisbane, Auckland and Melbourne.

Fans march but are ignored as we see the rise of the transplanted South Melbourne Rabbitohs and North Brisbane Dragons, as private investors target the most valuable brands in the competition to buy history and legitimacy.

Nest time we shall have a look at all things Super League.





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