Next Wednesday night, some 52,000 people will pack into Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane for the much-hyped State of Origin decider between New South Wales and Queensland.
80,000 people watched the Maroons win Origin I in Sydney, while almost 60,000 were at Perth’s Optus Stadium to see the Blues level the series.
Origin will again dominate the list of most watched programs in 2022 with millions tuning in to watch Channel Nine’s broadcast of the first two games.
There is every chance that next Wednesday’s decider will smash the audience of the first two and become the most watched program on TV this year; and it’ll be unlikely to be beaten.
It’s all green ticks for rugby league.
But a problem lurks in the background.
For as long as anyone can remember, one of rugby league’s great debates has been when to play the State of Origin series.
The constant argument is that the mid-year, mid-week format weakens the NRL competition at a crucial period.
Those calling for the entire series to be moved to the end of the season got their wish by force in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic saw the Blues and Maroons battle it out in November, post the delayed NRL Grand Final in late October.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. The appetite just wasn’t there for rugby league after the culmination of the season, the TV ratings didn’t stack up and flaws in the argument started to become apparent, particularly around the likelihood that more players would pull out of the showpiece to fix up niggling injuries to ensure they were fit for the start of the next NRL season.
You can rule out Origin ever being moved to the end of the season again: it’s not going to happen at least not in the near-future.
The truth is the NRL has got it right with the current format – more right than it has ever been in the past.
With two Wednesday night games and a stand-alone Sunday match, you’ve got the perfect scenario.
The disruption to the NRL is limited, with teams only being forced to play without their Origin players once during the series. They have a bye on the other weekend, and aren’t impacted by the stand-alone match.
The stand-alone game being played on a Sunday with no other football over the weekend is no longer an issue with the exciting Test matches and women’s representative games we now get across the weekend.
More and more NRL players are ineligible for Origin under the current rules, so the growth of the international game, and having Tests on such a weekend, is important to invest in.
It’s as close to a perfect scenario you’re going to get for what is an imperfect situation with Origin being so popular, but the NRL needing to march on.
And yet, in typical rugby league fashion, we’re about to blow it all up.
Every indication is that we’re heading back to three Wednesday Origins next year, with the Sunday game being dumped.
Exactly how that will work in terms of the schedule is unknown.
You surely can’t force teams back to losing their Origin players for two games, and you can’t decrease the presence of international footy given the success of the mid-season matches in recent times.
There’s talk that it’s Channel Nine who’s pushing for this, but their own numbers wouldn’t support such a move.
This year Origin one soared to a national average audience of 2.937 million on a Wednesday night, but was surpassed by the Sunday game, with 3.007 million.
Those numbers indicate audiences have no real issue with the Sunday night timeslot.
The NRL has a difficult challenge in meeting the demands of broadcasters with the wants and wishes of fans.
And those fans are generally split on the best situation anyway.
Some will argue they want earlier kick-offs so their kids can watch the game, but the counter-punch to that is some want the younger kids in bed so they can watch the footy in peace.
Wednesday kick-offs must remain at 8pm to ensure people can get to the ground on time after work, especially in Brisbane and Sydney where peak hour has a massive impact on the grounds in question.
The Saturday night kick-off some fans scream for will never happen given it’s one of TV’s real dead zones. Channel Nine simply wouldn’t allow it to happen and given the cash involved you can understand why.
The NRL is currently on a good thing.
The TV ratings and crowd figures, the major numbers that matter, prove that. Ratings may be down when compared to years past but commercial TV is facing that reality in every category at present.
The growing interest in the international game, a significant advantage the NRL has over the AFL, is also a major win.
I understand the current NRL administration has a desire to tweak; but it must hold the course here.
The current schedule is the best possible scenario for all involved, including the NRL, the Origin teams, the fans and the broadcasters. If you think otherwise, it’s likely an opinion clouded by your personal situation.
Changing the current schedule is madness. It’s the perfect scenario after years of trying to find it.
Let’s not ruin it now.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.