It’s perfectly reasonable to be curious, maybe even a little excited, at the prospect of the charity exhibition match the AFL is holding in Melbourne tonight.
At face value, it has the potential to be a really fun, memorable evening. You’ve got two teams loaded with basically the best of the AFL’s best, in front of what will be a very decent crowd and all for an incredibly decent cause.
It’s an event that ought to defy cynicism, and surely would have if not for one piece of pesky branding.
From the day the idea was first mooted, this game has taken on a double life; one as a heartfelt and invaluable means of fundraising for victims of this summer’s bushfires, and the other as the grand return of one of Australian rules football’s grandest old traditions, State of Origin.
Even when large portions of the country pointed out that All Stars is, in fact, not a state or territory of Australia, the branding has remained. Players and pundits and fans have spoken of their excitement at reviving the format, of donning the Big V and representing Victoria just as Lockett and Dunstall and Roos once did.
More than that, the game will inevitably spark further discussion and debate as to the future of the format. The rumblings have already begun, but should the match go well — and absolutely everything is in place to ensure it does — there will be ever more cries to make State of Origin a thing again.
Most involved in the debate will focus on the “how” of it all — how should it be scheduled in relation to the club season? How do we get the best players involved? How do we convince players and clubs to jeopardise their seasons for what is essentially a friendly match?
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But perhaps the more pertinent question, 20 years after the last proper State of Origin match was played and in what is now a truly national competition, is “why?”
Given its half-hearted approach to reviving the format, featuring only one actual state team, it seems the AFL isn’t even completely committed to the entire concept of ‘State of Origin’ for the modern age, and there are justifiable reasons for why that might be so.
State of Origin was once the only chance for the likes of Western Australia and South Australia to be represented on a national footballing scale. That is quite clearly no longer the case.
It was an opportunity for the SA and WA players to prove a point against the perceived evil empire of Victoria — to ‘Kick a Vic’, as it was elegantly put. Those opportunities now exist every week.
The games were opportunities to attract above-average crowds with an above-average spectacle in a time when the league — the VFL that is — was struggling financially. This is far less of an urgent priority.
It’s been close to 30 years since State of Origin held real relevance in Australian rules football. Those who played in and cheered on those classic games in the 70s and especially the 80s will understandably insist on its charm, but for a younger generation — the one the AFL is most desperate to entice — it’s a relic of a bygone era.
All of this is not to say that something similar can not work or should not be investigated. Getting the league’s best players together for an all-action kickabout, especially in the name of charity, is surely a worthwhile endeavour in any context.
And perhaps the solution has already been teased by the AFL — forget Victoria, what about the All Stars?
Would taking state allegiances out of tonight’s game make it any less watchable? Is the collection of players chucked together under the white and gold banner of ‘The Rest’ any less intriguing than those wearing a Big V? Wouldn’t taking all restrictions off player selection just make things more fun?
Given the AFL’s love of all things American sport, they might consider taking a leaf out of the book of NBA All Star weekend or the Pro Bowl. There could be room for skills challenges, goalkicking contests, get Liam Ryan and Jeremy Howe to go nuts on a specky bag for half an hour, anything is possible. They could make a day of it, raise some decent money, make it a spectacle for everyone, not just nostalgic Victorians.
Maybe they could even schedule the AFLW game, played for premiership points and with actual stakes, as the prime-time main event rather than a lobbed-in curtain raiser.
Is this an essential event for the future of the AFL? Probably not. The league is thriving, with or without State of Origin or an All Star game or AFLX or any other glitzy add-on. It has the luxury of contemplating such extravagances without any boom-or-bust consequences attached.
But if this is a route the AFL is determined to go down, and all evidence suggests it probably is, turning back the clock in such a half-hearted way may not be the long-term answer.
Tonight, the entirety of the AFL community will come together for a worthy cause. In the future, the only way to service the entirety of the AFL community is to look forward, not back to the game’s more isolated past.