England hope Exiles idea will pack as big a punch as State of Origin
The plan behind tonight's clash at Leeds is to match the intensity of Australia's deadliest rivalry in order to give the hosts a much-needed boost at Test level
Friday 10 June 2011
Almost 31 years ago, Queensland and New South Wales took the field to play each other under a controversial new rule. Instead of representing the state where you played your club rugby league, you wore the colours – maroon or blue – of the one where you originated.
The sceptics said it could never work, that the concept of "state against state, mate against mate" was fatally flawed.
But then the Queensland veteran, Artie Beetson, walloped his Parramatta team-mate and good friend, Mick Cronin, and the legend of State of Origin was born.
Although there has been a lot more to it than pals being prepared to thump each other, it has, since that day in Brisbane, become synonymous with everything that is intense and confrontational in rugby league.
It has also been Australia's built-in advantage. Before their players get to Test level, they have been through the furnace of Origin. It is no coincidence that since its inception, they have not lost a series or a major tournament to a British side.
Small wonder, then, that in this country we have been desperate to emulate it. There was a half-hearted attempt to do so with the War of the Roses, an annual match between Lancashire and Yorkshire, but that was more like two old men bickering over a pint of mild than deadly rivals going for each other's throats.
There were hopes that, once France had a club in Super League, their national side would be strong enough to provide a genuine challenge. Recent scorelines show that not to be the case.
So at Headingley tonight, the game tries a different tack, with England for the first time facing a side drawn from the best Australian and New Zealand players in Super League, carrying the title of Exiles.
As so often in rugby league, the superficially radical is actually more of a case of going back to the future. The concept of Exiles is derived from Other Nationalities – the all-encompassing "best of the rest" team that had several bursts of activity, but was at its strongest in the 1950s; Brian Bevan, for instance, played virtually all his representative rugby for Other Nationalities.
"Even now, when you come over here, you more or less rule yourself out of representative football," says Exiles – and former Leeds – coach, Brian McClennan. "That's why the players are so grateful for this opportunity. It doesn't count as a Test, but we're preparing for it as if it was."
Despite the gimmick of fans voting for who they would like to see in the Exiles side, McClennan has got essentially the side he wanted for tonight's inaugural fixture.
That means an abundance of experience in Tests and State of Origin, nobody more so than the Leeds hooker, Danny Buderus, who captained both NSW and Australia before relocating to Yorkshire.
"He has done it all and he's still excited by this," says McClennan. "But they all are. We're pretty proud of where we come from and we think we're pretty good at rugby league."
All of which is music to the ears of the England coach, Steve McNamara. "That's exactly the sort of challenge we want," he says. "I've absolutely no doubt that this can grow into our version of State of Origin. This should be the start of something very big."
The agenda at the Rugby League's headquarters is that the International Origin match should grow into an annual three-game series. To do that, however, it needs to establish instant credibility tonight.
Nobody wants a brawl, but if Buderus and his Leeds team-mate – and England captain – Jamie Peacock were to square up to each other at some stage, it would illustrate that it was all "fair dinkum". The same goes for the St Helens pair, James Graham and Tony Puletua. The "mate against mate" possibilities are endless, but you could sell tickets for that particular confrontation.
Unlike the Lancashire-Yorkshire games of the past, nobody wants to miss this one – but that is the fate of Huddersfield's Danny Brough.
His form made him an inevitable selection as England scrum-half, but his ankle ligament injury last Sunday has robbed the side of one of its main focuses of interest.
"But as one door closes, another opens for someone else," says Richie Myler, the Warrington half-back who is that someone else. "It's a great opportunity for me."
Still only 21, Myler has already had a roller-coaster career. After making a two-try debut against Wales and scoring three against France the following season, he seemed for a while to have hit the buffers at club level, when he was dropped for big matches, including a Challenge Cup final, by Warrington coach, Tony Smith.
"It was very disappointing, because nobody likes being left out of big games," he says. "But, as Tony said to me at the time, it can either make you a better player, or you can go the other way. I like to think that I've come out the other side of that."
Despite the setbacks of a serious knee injury and a fractured cheekbone, Myler has now firmly established himself. "He's much more mature now, as a player and as a person," says McNamara. "The experiences he has had, especially the disappointments, have enhanced him."
Tellingly, he is teamed-up tonight with another player who had his share of disappointments early in his career, in Kevin Sinfield. It is a measure of England's task, however, that the opposing pair of half-backs consists of the World Cup-winner, Thomas Leuluai, and arguably the form player in Super League this season, Rangi Chase.
Those are the sort of credentials that should guarantee the level of skill on display tonight. That on its own will not sell tickets, however. They have been a little slow to shift, encouraging the sponsors, CarPlan, to underwrite freezing the prices at the turnstiles at the same level as tickets bought in advance.
Whether the hoped-for 14,000 feel they have had their money's worth will depend on the intensity. So if, say, Adrian Morley, was to go toe-to-toe with one of his Warrington team-mates, the credibility battle would be half way to being won. Messrs Beetson and Cronin would concur.
* State of Origin rugby league games began Down Under in 1980 with New South Wales traditionally taking on Queensland in a best-of-three series each year.
* Origin has elevated players like Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga to iconic status. It is the top-rated televised sporting event in Australia and attracted an Australian rugby league record crowd of 87,161 on neutral territory in Melbourne in 1994.
* Queensland have won the last five series and lead 1-0 in this year's games. The second match is in Sydney on Wednesday.
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