Paul Kent: 'Make Origin hate again'
In the heavy moments before Game I Wayne Bennett was being interviewed under the grandstand and, as nearly always happens, the conversation turned to the syrupy kind of storytelling that infects Origin nowadays.
Bennett was back as Queensland coach after coaching the Maroons from 1986-88, back in 1998, and then again from 2001-03 and so now, here we are after 40 years, he was asked, and they said Origin would never make it.
Bennett understands Origin like few others and most felt his answer endorsed how the series is advancing, missing it entirely that his reply was a warning shot to the NRL and those who promote the game.
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And so long as they keep it mate versus mate, he replied, and hate versus hate, it will last another 40 years.
It was Bennett's subtle dig to ignore the outside noise that Origin should include Tongans and Samoans and Kiwis and Englishmen to somehow elevate Origin to the best of the best, decisions made by men who do not know, as if that will somehow make it better.
The tribalism, Bennett knows, is why Origin works.
But the tribalism is only half the story.
The truth is in the numbers. While the Game I ratings were explained away as a downturn from COVID there was a time when Origin drew four million viewers across the country, numbers it hasn't drawn for years.
Last week it drew little more than two million.
Those two million missing people have not all died. They're in bed, or watching some renovation show.
Origin figures have been in decline for some years.
There are several reasons why.
Perhaps the place to start is when former chief executive Dave Smith made the edict that punching would automatically end in a sin bin in 2013.
It did not matter that there was a loosely applied rule already, or that Smith's greater intention was to take the ban on punching from Origin football into club football.
Smith's intention was good. He believed that without the violence those prepared to watch Origin might also start watching club football.
The opposite has happened.
The fight was part of the Origin story, and is what brought the hate versus hate that Bennett believes is key to the series' success.
Tension is the key.
Fans knew the game was played on a tinderbox. Any tackle, any scrum, could erupt in a brawl.
When Tommy Raudonikis took over coaching NSW he even gave it a name, "cattle dog", and it was so popular they made T-shirts for it.
"Doesn't play well with others."
A fight didn't always happen but the expectation brought a tension that stayed throughout the game.
And if it didn't happen in this game it only heightened the tension for the next game.
Tension is the key to all good story telling, whether it is the nervous wait of Sonny Corleone standing guard over his unconscious father in hospital or Benny Elias putting his head into a scrum against Steve Walters, wondering if this is the one.
That tension brought the fans to the contest, especially the periphery fans.
Nobody wants to see bodies carted from the stadium but it is worth knowing that in the history of Origin only Steve Price was ever knocked out.
Many fondly recall the Andrew Johns-Jamie Goddard fight where, respectfully, they didn't break the skin on a rice pudding. Johnny Lewis wasn't hunting for their phone numbers afterwards.
When Chris Close lost his jumper in 1984 the greatest damage happened in the grandstand, his wife mortally embarrassed at his gut out on display.
Each, though, brought tension that remains today.
Wally Lewis inspired a state, and breathed life into Origin, because viewers could reach out and touch his hatred for NSW. And Queenslanders knew it.
Last week's Origin was little more than a bloated club game. Nothing from Game I will make the highlight reel when Origin reaches its next great milestone in 10 years.
Double that down with the virus that is wrestling, which has removed the big hits that also used to be a hallmark, and what was left was a game being lauded for its speed, as if Origin is now a track meet.
The concept is being killed from within.
The narrative is too passive. Origin hasn't had a genuine reason for spite since Paul Gallen, who got the big picture, called Queenslanders "two-heads" in 2014.
The irony is Smith immediately got it but it was too late to go back on his earlier directive.
A year later, with Origin selling slowly in Melbourne, the NRL boss secretly offered Gallen $20,000 if he could fire up the series and sell out the MCG, which was struggling to sell tickets.
Gallen called Billy Slater "disrespectful" and gave his evidence and the fuse was lit. The MCG sold 91,000 and Gallen got his $20,000.
For too many recent years the narrative around Origin has been syrupy sweet backstories because players are constantly warned in camp against saying something that might motivate their opponents, as if they need more motivation.
So the storytelling around the game is too passive.
The richness of Origin, from which it was built, was that every game had its story and every story was genuine.
That's what the pioneers built, which the modern player profits from.
Not long after Queensland made a rallying call of Billy Moore's "Queenslander" call the then NSW coach, Phil Gould, told his boss at Channel 9 that the Blues had vowed that the first Maroon to yell "Queenslander" was going to get smashed straight in the mouth.
The word soon leaked to Queensland coach Paul Vautin who also worked at Nine and, naturally, challenged his players.
"Who's going to be the first to call 'Queenslander'," Vautin asked, and 16 hands immediately shot up. Ben Ikin politely declined.
By game time the story was everywhere, alluded to and denied in the media, and everyone tuned in waiting to see whether it was true and what might happen.
First scrum it happened.
What was lost was Gould understood the theatre of Origin.
He deliberately leaked the Blues' vow knowing Vautin would get told.
It won't be the right call politically, but there is only one call to make.
Originally published as Paul Kent: Make Origin hate again