All-Star games are flawed. Every year leagues try to create manufactured drama by adding layer upon layer of confusion in a pathetic attempt to get us to care. The Pro Bowl is convoluted, the NBA All-Star Game is a glorified pickup contest and the NHL has its yearly multi-game goalfest where nobody plays defense. Everyone could learn from Australian rugby league and the stakes of the sport's greatest rivalry -- the State of Origin.
What is the State of Origin?
The National Rugby League in Australia conducts its equivalent of the All-Star game in midseason, rather than capping it off. It's a spectacle that spans months, not just an afternoon, and is conducted during the Southern Hemisphere's winter, beginning in late May and lasting until early July. Discussion of the State of Origin begins far earlier than that, with almost a month leadup after the teams are named.
How does the State of Origin work?
Making a squad is considered the highest of honors. Instead of divvying up players based on professional team, the State of Origin squads are determined by where players first stepped on the field in senior rugby league. This almost always means the place where they were born, and is the key conceit of the rivalry between New South Wales and Queensland. Three 80-minute games stop two states and premiers (the equivalent of governors) bet on their state's chances. Imagine a college rivalry game pushed to its absolute limit, where everyone, even those who aren't conscious of sport, is invested. The 2014 premiers' bet is a touch more conservative than usual: the loser needs to wear the opposing team's jersey and run around a lake in Canberra, the nation's capital. These are politicians we're talking about.
Why is the State of Origin sports' best All-Star game?
We're left with a perfect storm, one where the citizens of a normally united country give themselves a chance to be wholly uncivilized for three nights a year. You're blue or maroon, there's no in-between -- identifying either as a cockroach or cane toad (yes, those are the mascots). This isn't one of those things that needs drama manufactured by promotions or gimmicks, but happens organically out of state pride. Suddenly players who were teammates a month ago are at each other's throats. It's brutal and beautiful.
Who should I pull for?
It's loathsome to admit that Queensland are better, but they are. The vast state to the north tends to produce the country's best rugby players out of the stifling tropical heat and rural dust bowls. Players tend to be a little more rough around the edges, but something about developing in that climate makes them hard as nails.
Then there's New South Wales, best known to outsiders as the state that houses Sydney. The thriving metropolis and financial capital of Australia is home to large corporations, bustling tourism and a vast immigrant population that makes it a melting pot. It exploded after the 2000 Olympics which served as a showpiece, and now we're starting to see state pride from those who moved from other nations to the country's most populace state.
It's unclear how it happens, but by chance it always seems like the Maroons are bigger and stronger, while the Blues are lighter and quicker. It adds yet another differentiating layer that makes the State of Origin unlike any other All-Star game or any rugby game period.
On some level, the State of Origin could be defined as "city vs. country," but that's not really accurate. The wine and sheep regions of NSW are vast, while QLD boasts Brisbane, the beaches and the Great Barrier Reef. The series is a civil war for a country that hasn't been touched with any serious internal unrest, firmly couching Australia close to England's imperialist bosom.
A game of high stakes
The shame of wearing maroon is the greatest indignation a Sydneysider can bear, which is why at 16 years old, I was disgusted to enter a sporting goods store and ask the clerk for a Queensland jersey and pot of maroon face paint. "What are ya, a fuckin' Queenslander?" the clerk bristled while scanning the items. "Shit no, lost a bet," I replied sheepishly. All he could respond with was "Sucks to be you, mate." Stopping next at an office supply store, I grabbed a thick roll of off-white duct tape, crudely spelling out "BLUES FAN" on the back of my newly purchased maroon jersey, if for no other reason than to save a little face on my commute to school.
Crossing over the Sydney Harbor Bridge, a small group of workers were raising Queensland's state flag to the top of the city's most cherished icon, a result of that year's bet between the premiers. There was a palpable undertone of disgust from businessmen and women, knowing they'd be forced to deal with their loudmouthed Queensland co-workers.
Sally was barely 5 feet tall and boasted a smile a mile wide. She couldn't be missed perching by the gate as I rounded the city block to my high school. Her platinum blonde hair got to remain so; if the Blues had won, it would be a lovely shade of New South Wales state pride. "Good game last night, eh?" she quipped, trying desperately to hold back her laughter. Queensland won 40-14 in a stomach-churning rout. I could taste the chemical chalkiness of the face paint that welled in the corners of my mouth from scowling. "Shut up, I don't want to hear it," was the best I could muster.
It's that magical time of year once again where the Blues of New South Wales and Maroons of Queensland will lock horns. Forget an All-Star game, this is about pride and reputation. Stakes are high for the players, but perhaps more so for the supporters hoping to avoid humiliation. They all have their bets placed, the wagers set. Even though I'm half a world away, I know there's another James and another Sally, talking up their teams on the schoolyard and preparing their bets. Maybe this time it will be hair that's dyed, not a face painted.
At least the Blues supporter in me hopes so.
Game two of the State of Origin airs on Fox Soccer Plus in the US at 9 p.m. on Wed, June 18.