Look at Queensland’s and NSW’s State Of Origin campaigns for the past 5-6 years and it’s obvious that there’s something vital within the Maroons camp that’s lacking in Ricky Stuart’s and previously Craig Bellamy’s Blues outfits.
You could argue that Queensland’s depth of talent with the likes of Lockyer, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and so on have weighed the scales heavily in their favour, but NSW field plenty of current and former test players and have an incredible amount of experience and talent to call on from their available pool of players. The same can be said about their selection of coaches.
What is it that’s missing? Looking at players reactions or body language, you might hazard a guess that it has something to do with attitude. The boys from the north look like they have absolute faith that they can win. There doesn’t seem to be anxiety or stress around that fact. Each of them play in the toughest competition on the planet week in and week out so there’s never going to be a slacking off because of cockiness either. They all have a solid understanding and respect for the players they’re up against.
The Blues have looked too easily shell shocked in the past few years. Often before the matches have even kicked off. Greg Bird responded angrily when questioned on the NRL Footy Show prior to the 2011 series, about the passion and drive in NSW when it comes to State Of Origin. From the outside looking in, it looked as though it (his response) was coming from weak self-belief or faith. A player certain in himself, and his team would be expected to respond with a calm (and probably boring answer). Much like those of the great Darren Lockyer.
It’s so important that players of the Lockyer, or Cameron Smith mold can maintain that confidence and poise, even after a loss.
So where does a drive, and composure of this ilk come from? The players? The pride in their jersey? First and foremost it comes from leadership. Both off the field with via coaching, and on the field through their captain.
It comes down to managing people. Through communication, and by example. It’s no secret that Mal Meninga has a strong rapport and connection to his team. He’s a Queensland and rugby league legend but not necessarily a great coach. Ricky Stewart is also legend. A fine player and a proven coach, but he – and even more so Craig Bellamy before him – perhaps lacked the aura of Meninga. Rapport and relationships certainly are not the be all and end all of coaching, but it does add tremendous weight to the drive behind an Origin campaign.
On the Origin battlefield we see the finest Rugby League in the world – bar none. It’s the intensity, passion, violence, pace, energy and above all else expectation that makes it such a remarkable event. There’s nothing else like it in sport.
It’s that arena that players are expected to give everything they can of themselves, attempt the remarkable, and pull off the impossible. Players must have more then just sound coaching or strategies to win in Origin. They need inspiration along with direction. It’s no surprise to league purists that State of Origin has produced more incredible tries, and unbelievable come-backs then any other match up in the sport.
Perhaps the only area of Origin that is overshadowed, is the role of the team captain in a Grand Final. It is a different animal leading men that you’ve split blood with for 30 odd weeks, compared to leading a for 3 games each season. But the demands on a skipper come State of Origin do still play a huge part in the success of the team. Making decisions and sticking to a game plan while encouraging and inspiring a team that only plays one series a year, through the emotional and physical cauldron of Origin football takes a pure leader. QLD has had Lockyer, deputised by Thurston and Smith with their immense experience to do the job.
NSW has looked to the rather unremarkable Kurt Gidley in the past, but now have the ideally suited Paul Gallen, who looks as if he was purpose built to play representative football. If Gallen can get his decision making to match his the quality of his general play NSW might finally have an effective long term leader. Another candidate who may have slightly more vision on the field is Greg Bird. He, like Gallen, is perfectly suited to the combative style of Origin plus he has a good skill set with ball playing abilities as well as leadership qualities.
The Blues are still looking to build inner-belief and emotional momentum. Whether or not the unit that makes up NSW Cockroaches can combine their plentiful talent across the paddock with faith enough to produce a similar reign of success to the Cane Toads have will be seen over the next few seasons of State Of Origin.