State of Origin’s unplanned foray into Townsville could inspire a major rethink of the series’ future fixturing, Queensland icon Darren Lockyer believes.
Origin I was moved from the 100,000 capacity MCG to the 25,000-seat Queensland Country Bank Stadium, due to Melbourne’s resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
The NRL has embraced mass-scale neutral venues, also playing games at Adelaide Oval and Perth’s Optus Stadium to spread the rugby league gospel. In coming years, Optus Stadium (2022), Adelaide Oval (2023) and the MCG (2024, 2026) will all feature again in the Origin series, alongside Sydney and Brisbane.
Yet Lockyer believes that the NRL may stumble across something irresistible in Townsville; an incredible small-stadium atmosphere that ticks another box, given that it’s in a regional rugby league heartland. Stadiums such as Newcastle (33,000 capacity) and Canberra (25,000) may get a chance to host matches if Townsville is a smash hit, Lockyer suggested.
“It’s going to be an interesting test,” Lockyer said on Wide World of Sports’ QLDER.
“If you look at when they’re trying to grow the game, you take it to Adelaide Oval, the you go to Perth, then you go to the MCG. I know that holds a lot of people but those markets don’t necessarily 100 per cent understand rugby league.
“And the crowd’s a little bit away from the rectangular field, so it dilutes the product somewhat because of the atmosphere. You go to a smaller stadium, the atmosphere, we know, is going to be amazing and the whole build-up to this game’s gonna be enormous.
“I think once the dust has settled after this game, the NRL would have to seriously look at the numbers that are generated from a brand uplift and from the financial perspective, and go, ‘Well, this might work at smaller stadiums across the country’.
“Whether Newcastle comes into it, Canberra does. I just think this could be the start of something new for the NRL.”
Fellow Maroons great Wally Lewis said that Townsville, which will add 2000 temporary seats, would put on a spectacular match. The Townsville region produced great players such as Billy Slater, Sam Thaiday and Gene Miles, and was the long-term footballing home of Johnathan Thurston.
“This is going to be a wonderful game, it’s going to have enormous atmosphere, being played in the bush,” Lewis said.
“Townsville certainly has produced plenty of rugby league history over the years and to see the game going up there is going to be exciting for everybody. Certainly in the Queensland camp, at least.”
Yet the small stadium idea was rebuffed by NSW coach Brad Fittler, who said that the NRL was right to use only major venues under normal circumstances.
“You really want to get into the biggest venues, Suncorp, (Stadium Australia).” Fittler said on Freddy and the Eighth.
“I know this is unusual, how this was just sprung upon us. Newcastle would be good but I think you’ve got to take it to the biggest venues.”
The NRL has pushed for club matches to be played in regional areas and such fixtures are now a normal, popular part of the season. Townsville is the first regional host of an Origin match and will likely be the last, unless the NRL is taken with the attractions lauded by Lockyer.
Neutral venues have also been employed through the prism of fairness; the series is then one home game per team, rather than 2-1 on a rotating basis. Queensland gained a major advantage by securing two consecutive matches – Townsville then Brisbane – after the MCG fixture was scrapped. The deal was reportedly sealed by an $8 million bid from the Queensland state government.
For a daily dose of the best of the breaking news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here!