League secures a rare privilege

Since I finished coaching the NSW Origin team at the end of the 2010 series, I have only been to one “live” Origin game.

That was the 2012 match at Etihad Stadium. As the Storm’s coach it’s always difficult to travel to an Origin game in Sydney or Brisbane because of my obligations to Storm. I will be going to the MCG on Wednesday for only my second time as an Origin spectator since 2010.

The chance to see a rugby league match of this quality on the most famous sports stadium in Australia is too good to resist.

Get to AAMI Park on Monday 15 June when Storm host the Eels. It's Monday mates night! Get your 2-for-1 tickets, food & drink offers.

Even the Australia-England Test match at last year’s Four Nations series wasn’t played at the MCG. It is a rare privilege for another code other than AFL or cricket to be out there. The last time league was there was Origin in 1997 but only just over 25,000 spectators were there. Rugby League has more of a presence in Victoria now, through the Storm being part of the NRL competition, so there is much more interest in rugby league.

But it seems this Origin game has captured the imaginations of many Victorians, as well as interstate visitors with around 80,000 tickets sold so far, and there’s still a few days to go.

So that’s close to a sell-out at a world famous venue that doesn’t get league played on it very often.

I’ve been to an AFL grand final and a couple of preliminary finals before and it’s a tremendous ground with an incredible atmosphere when near capacity.

I’d imagine the ground staff will be looking at putting some more water on the surface after the last AFL game is played there tomorrow (Sunday), to soften things up a bit and stimulate the grass growth more.

Earlier this season some AFL clubs were complaining how hard the surface was but I’m sure it’s much more suitable to the footy codes now, but it will be a little slippery with some dew about for the game.

Both NSW and Queensland will have a training session there on Tuesday to give them an idea of what conditions are like. You’d think it will be a quick surface without a doubt so both teams will probably open up their running game a little more than they did in Sydney.

You’d like to think the game will be a success and go some way to bringing Origin to Melbourne – and the MCG – more frequently.

It’s always a point of conjecture when an Origin match is moved away from Brisbane or Sydney. To me it makes very good sense to play one in each of those league-centric cities but to have one at a neutral venue.

I can also see that since it is a series involving just NSW and Queensland then that’s where all three games should be played. But, besides having a neutral venue, it is also helping build the game in other parts of the country. We have a great game, we should be promoting it in non league states.

I’m not sure why Melbourne is the second game, and not the first or third but I’m pretty sure the NRL wouldn’t plan to have a third game at a neutral venue. If the series was 2-0 after two games, who would want a dead rubber in Melbourne.

The NRL have really looked after the promotion of rugby league in Melbourne too as the Storm have a game here Monday night against Parramatta, then Origin on Wednesday, and another club game against the Broncos on the Sunday.

So that’s a big week of rugby league in Melbourne with three games in seven days.

There are three current Storm players in the Queensland side in Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Will Chambers. There are three former Stormers in Greg Inglis, Aidan Geurra (Qld) and Ryan Hoffman (NSW). But there should be another out there and that’s Cooper Cronk.

He is recovering from knee surgery so I’ve left him alone this week. But all his Storm teammates know how disappointed he is and really feeling for him – not so much at missing an Origin game but because of where this particular Origin game is being played.

It took 18 years for Origin to come back to the MCG so Coops will be cursing his bad luck to not play on such a sacred place in the Melbourne, and Australian, sporting landscape.

I also want to mention Mal Meninga and Laurie Daley. I’m just really proud to see two blokes from my old club, the Canberra Raiders, doing so well at the top level.

Finally, I just want to acknowledge Anthony Watmough playing his 300th NRL game on Monday night. He’ll be in the opposition team against my Storm but to play that many games at this level is quite remarkable.

And for Anthony, they’ve all been pretty high quality too. He’s been a great player for Manly, now the Eels, for NSW and Australia. I coached him at NSW for three years and he put in a few phenomenal performances there.

He is tough and resilient and I’m sure he has a lot more games in him yet. 

This article originally appeared in The Australian.