State of Origin on the road earns huge tick of approval

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The Melbourne Cricket Ground is a truly wonderful sports stadium.

Its sheer capacity of 100,024 and cauldron-like atmosphere coupled with decades of history make it not only an iconic Melbourne landmark but without doubt one of the world's premier venues for live sport.

From the Olympic Games to the famed Boxing Day Test, AFL grand finals to European football powerhouses Liverpool and Real Madrid - there isn't much in the world of sport the MCG hasn't seen and hosted since opening in 1853, and done so with aplomb.

So when State of Origin football returned for just the third time in 22 years and 87,122 fans draped in maroon and baby blue scarves braved a chilly winter's night for 80 minutes of high-octane rugby league, one question immediately springs to mind: Why has it taken so long for Sydney and Brisbane to release its stranglehold of Origin football?

Sure, the ground's oval shape may not be conducive to the best viewing experience for a game that's traditionally played on a rectangular field, but the players would have you believe the electric crowd atmosphere certainly makes up for it.

From the epic festivities before kick-off until the final siren, the energy inside the 'G was on par with what you'd expect to see at an AFL final, maybe even better. The bipartisan crowd barely took a moment's break from raucous cheering and deafening boos as New South Wales came-from-behind to score a pulsating 22-12 win and take a 1-0 series lead back to Sydney for Game 2.

"I thought it was awesome to come down here and play," Blues skipper Boyd Cordner said. "I know that the boys were buzzing all week to come here and get the opportunity to play at such an iconic ground like the MCG, I was lucky enough to play in the 2015 game and that was a great experience [as well]."

Wednesday night in Melbourne was the beginning of the NRL's seemingly bold but necessary quest to take its most marketable product on the road. In 2019 it will be Perth's turn to host a game in the highly-anticipated series before shifting to Adelaide in 2020 and back to Melbourne in 2021.

Make no mistake, this is a good thing for Origin.

It's over! New South Wales wins 22-12 and takes a 1-0 series lead after a dominant three-try-to-one second half. James Tedesco easily the best player on the night, scoring the opening try and setting up two others.

Jake Michaels, ESPN Assistant Editor164d ago

Contrary to popular belief, interest in rugby league away from Queensland and New South Wales does exist and the ongoing argument that Australian states outside of league heartland don't watch or want the game is completely flawed.

Aussie Rules may reign supreme in Victoria -- as well as South Australia and Western Australia -- but last year the Melbourne Storm managed to generate the NRL's second best average attendance figures, behind only the Brisbane Broncos. The interest is there.

Having games away from Sydney and Brisbane also allows the NRL to grow the game of rugby league. By giving those who don't have the luxury to attend live matches the chance to witness the sport's marquee games in person, it's likely to help generate a new wave of fans. If Origin really is at the pinnacle of Australian sport, then why shouldn't it be showcased around the nation?

"With State of Origin I don't think there's anything quite like it in the world, that rivalry, so wherever you take it you're going to get a good response and a good following," Cordner said. "It's really good to showcase our game, not just in New South Wales and Queensland."

Staging one of the three games in a neutral state also adds a degree of fairness to the series which in the past has been missing. In Origin history, the home team has won 61 percent of games, so it's pretty clear that whichever state hosts two of the three has a distinct advantage. Cordner believes this is a welcomed change.

"With there being three games it's fair to take one in a neutral place and have a home game each," Cordner said. "Tonight was a great example of that with the turnout and the support we got."

The reluctance to regularly hold one of the three games outside of Sydney and Brisbane has finally worn thin. Origin expansion is something the NRL simply had to do.

The interest exists, the venues are there and it just makes sense on so many levels. If Wednesday night's game in Melbourne proved one thing: State of Origin on the road is a winner.