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Why 'State of Birth' doesn't work

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Thursday, June 21, 2012 - 3:00 PM
Source: SportsFan
Author: Dominic Brock

Aside from the usual controversies, the major talking point to emerge from this year's State of Origin series is the question of player eligibility – and more specifically the matter of New Zealand stars being "poached" by New South Wales or Queensland.

The decision of New Zealand-born James Tamou to represent NSW and Australia dominated the lead-up to this year's Australia v New Zealand Test, and now there's plenty of debate going around about the possibility of Sam Kasiano being picked for Queensland despite signing a letter of intent to play for the Kiwis just two months ago.

With the rules as they stand, it's hard to really blame the states or the players for this situation. The Maroons and the Blues want to select the best players possible, and the game's best players want to play in rugby league's biggest event. The fact it pays very well (with talk match payments could rise to $50,000 per Origin game under the next broadcasting rights deal) means that playing Origin is also simply a smart financial decision for players whose careers won't last forever.

ARLC chairman John Grant has admitted that the eligibility situation is "an issue" for the game, saying, "we have to be more clear about who can play for who and whether it be Origin or their country".

But unfortunately there's no easy answer.

The simple answer is to restrict Origin to players who were born in a particular state. But that black-and-white rule could actually bring more harm than good.

Here's why.

State of Origin stands out as a sporting contest for two reasons: the quality of the players on the park, and the passion those players have for their state.

The latter notion is the sole reason that Origin is the brutal, no-holds barred contest that it is, and not just a rugby league equivalent of a novelty American-style All Star game. It's also – strangely enough – a reason why a "State of Birth" rule could hurt the contest.

A case in point: few Origin series wins are more memorable for the "passion" factor than Queensland's in 1995, when the Paul Vautin-coached underdogs beat the Blues 3-0 despite being without their galaxy of Super League-affiliated Brisbane Broncos stars.

Probably the most memorable moment of that series was Maroons lock Billy Moore yelling "Queenslander" as the Maroons walked out of tunnel before kick-off. It instantly became part of Origin legend, with Moore the personification of Queensland's much-vaunted "passion".

Moore was born in New South Wales. He grew up in Wallangarra, just on the north side of the border, but was born just south of the border in Tenterfield. A "State of Birth" rule would meant he would have to play against the state he loved.

Queensland's halfback for that 1995 series? Adrian Lam, who grew up in Brisbane from the age of seven but was born in Papua New Guinea.

A "State of Birth" rule would have made Sam Thaiday a Blue, and Peter Sterling a Maroon. Fiji-born stars Petero Civoniceva, Lote Tuqiri and Akuila Uate – and even Canberra-born Queensland centre Willie Tonga – would never have been allowed to compete in the series. Civoniceva, whose family moved to Queensland before his first birthday, has been a fixture for the Maroons for more than a decade and is set to play his 33rd match in this year's decider.

Yes, having "hired guns" from overseas lining up for a State of Origin team isn't a great look, but it's not like the current rules allow just any player to be picked by the Blues or Maroons. The Rabbitohs' English superstar Sam Burgess may live in Sydney but can't play for New South Wales Origin, because he played no junior football in the state.

Critics of Origin elgibility rules have pointed to the infamous Greg Inglis situation, and for good reason. The NSW-born and raised Inglis was snapped up by the Melbourne Storm as a 15-year-old and played for Storm feeder club Brisbane North Devils, making him eligible for the Maroons under the old Origin eligibility rules. He then proceeded to break the hearts of Blues fans with a string of match-winning performances in Queensland's six-year domination of the series.

But under the current rules, Inglis would have been a Blue – even without the need for a rule basing eligibility purely on birth.

So do the rules need another change, to stop New Zealand and other nations losing their best players to Origin?

Put simply, there's no obvious solution. Some have argued for teams to be picked based on residency – a rule that could move Origin towards NBA All Star game territory, where the "passion" would arguably be lacking. We've suggested that foreign-born players should be able to represent a state as well as their birth country – an idea that is also obviously open to plenty of scrutiny.

One thing's for sure – a strict eligibility rule based on birth would have given State of Origin a very different history. Here's a full 17-man team of players who would have had a different allegiance if eligibility was based on birth alone.

A team of stars who didn't play for their state
1. Karmichael Hunt (Born New Zealand, played for Queensland)
2. Lote Tuqiri (Born Fiji, played for Queensland)
3. Timana Tahu (Born Victoria, played for NSW)
4. Greg Inglis (Born NSW, plays for Queensland)
5. Akuila Uate (Born Fiji, plays for NSW)
6. Mat Rogers (Born NSW, played for Queensland)
7. Peter Sterling (Born Queensland, played for NSW)
8. James Tamou (Born New Zealand, plays for NSW)
9. Adrian Lam (Born Papua New Guinea, played for Queensland)
10. Petero Civoniceva (Born Fiji, plays for Queensland)
11. Sam Thaiday (Born NSW, plays for Queensland)
12. Tonie Carroll (Born New Zealand, played for Queensland)
13. Billy Moore (Born NSW, played for Queensland)
14. Frank Pritchard (Born NSW, plays for New Zealand)
15. Matt Gillett (Born NSW, plays for Queensland)
16. Michael Crocker (Born NSW, played for Queensland)
17. Willie Tonga (Born ACT, played for Queensland)

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