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Who needs AFL state of origin?

11 August 2012 517 views No Comment

STATE of Origin football is long dead in the Australian Football League. A thriving national competition and the reluctance of clubs to share top players for what seemed to be a near meaningless pursuit saw the state versus state exhibition brought to an end.

This is in stark contrast to the National Rugby League, where representative competition remains the pinnacle of the sport.

The AFL and its clubs are right in ignoring calls to resurrect state-based representative football and tonight at ANZ Stadium, when my beloved team, the mighty Collingwood, clash with the Sydney Swans, should demonstrate why.

When the Swans play the Magpies, there is always more than four premiership points on the line. It is NSW against Victoria. Sydney up against Melbourne.

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Just watch the high-level spectacle on show tonight. Watch Dale Thomas and Dayne Beams perform for the Pies and Kieren Jack and Lewis Jetta for Sydney. Watch the competitiveness and intensity of two teams with so much to play for. Watch the passion in the crowd, a 50,000-plus mix of red, white and black. If there were any lingering doubts, spectators will be left to wonder why the AFL would bother with a manufactured representative competition when a far better, natural state versus state rivalry already exists.

Collingwood is the biggest club in the biggest sporting competition in the nation.

It leads the way in every area fathomable. While it is a club that could hold its own in comparison with some of the world’s biggest, it is also deeply, proudly, Victorian.

The Swans are no longer the only AFL team in NSW but, for the moment, they remain the only relevant one. For more than 30 years the Swans have been flying the flag for the AFL code in NSW.

The only thing Collingwood fans hate more than Carlton, Melbourne and Essendon is seeing an interstate club atop the AFL ladder. The premiership cup has remained in the clutches of Victorian-based clubs – including Collingwood – for the past five seasons, but it is undeniable that rival states are circling.

Sydney is on top of the ladder, with Adelaide and Western Australia’s Eagles among those in pursuit. Collingwood will enjoy nothing more than an opportunity to displace the Swans.

In the NRL State of Origin, it has been seven years of pain for NSW. While there has been some hope for the Blues in recent years, their Maroon counterparts have always come up with the crucial try or, in this year’s rendition, the improbable field goal, to maintain their dominance.

The story is eerily similar for NSW’s premier AFL team. Believe it or not, it was in 2005, the same year the Blues last won an Origin series, that the Swans last took the four points against Collingwood. Since then, the Mighty Magpies have been 10 consecutive times the victor over Sydney.

When the Swans last beat Collingwood, John Howard was in office. The world economy was strong, the Australian dollar bought 76 US cents and the world was oblivious to an impending fiscal downturn. It was a year after Australian athletes returned from the Olympic Games in Athens with 17 gold medals. How things have changed.

The last time the Swans beat Collingwood, and it was by the narrowest of margins, current Swans co-captain Jarrad McVeigh was a 20-year-old with 30 matches’ experience. Elsewhere, Ben Cousins was at the peak of his considerable powers playing for the West Coast Eagles, on the way to securing a Brownlow medal.

The Swans have never been in a better position to topple the Pies than they are tonight. They are a game clear at the top of the table and playing wonderfully well. But droughts are hard to snap. Just ask Hawthorn after their shattering defeat by Geelong last weekend.

The Swans know well how hard it is to break a losing streak – it was 72 years between their 1933 premiership and the 2005 win.

We Collingwood supporters have little time for sentiment. While it is plastered across the club’s advertising paraphernalia, “It’s us against them” is no mere marketing tagline but a reflection on the way we Collingwood faithful are programmed to unambiguously support our team.

A win against the Magpies would catapult the Swans to the top of the national AFL media agenda and would help to consolidate the imagination of Sydney’s somewhat fickle sports followers. It would take them an important step closer to replicating their grand achievement of 2005.

But over the past seven years Collingwood supporters have enjoyed dominance over the Swans. It is why the black-and-white army will arrive in Sydney from Victoria in droves tonight.

It’s ironic that, apart from our power forward Travis Cloke, Collingwood’s most important player in this evening’s clash will be ex-Sydney premiership ruckman Darren Jolly.

At the same time, one of Sydney’s key defenders will be none other than ex-Collingwood star Rhyce Shaw, whose brother Heath still plays for the Mighty Magpies.

From my perspective, there has been enough change in the world since 2005.

Sometimes there is a lot to be said for the status quo – which is why Collingwood beating the Swans tonight is one of those special happenings that needn’t change soon.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books

The Weekend Australian , August 11-12 2012. Inquirer, August 11-12, 2012