There are probably a few State of Origin fans out there who had not planned on taking their post-match party back to a tent. But it says something about demand when hundreds of the canvas constructs are erected in Townsville to fill an accommodation shortfall for a rugby league match moved there at the last minute.
As has been the case more than once in sport during the pandemic, Melbourne’s loss has been Queensland’s gain, with Wednesday’s series opener shifted from the MCG to Queensland Country Bank Stadium. And a sell-out crowd has only reconfirmed that certain codes do not necessarily have to belong to certain locations.
The NRL has already experimented with Origin, staging games in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and even Long Beach, California in 1987. But this is the first time it has gone truly regional.
The tent city, called Footy Basecamp, was built on the run in three days last week and is set to house up to 200 people, as hotels manage waiting lists and even Magnetic Island experiences an influx of tourists from other parts of the state and south of the Tweed.
If Covid has offered sport a silver lining, it is that traditional grounds are not everything. Suncorp and ANZ Stadium are the long-established “fortresses” of the Maroons and Blues respectively. Queensland enjoy a superior record at Suncorp, where Wayne Bennett’s side held on last November for a Game Three and series win.
In uncharted territory such as this, there are no statistics to hint at an advantage one way or the other. Does the mere fact of it being in Queensland foretell a maiden win for new Queensland coach Paul Green? Are they better at breathing the air up there?
Or has Brad Fittler gained an upper hand in terms of intra-squad familiarity by picking effectively the entire Penrith Panthers team? Will the NRL’s high-contact crackdown produce unprecedented drama which would have played out in the same manner anywhere in the country?
Over the weekend, Maroons great Billy Slater came out with a surprise by predicting NSW may actually benefit from one element of the far-north environment.
“The only good thing for NSW is it’s going to be a dry track … 25, 26 degrees, no rain, whereas Melbourne was going to be 11 degrees and raining,” said Slater, who grew up in Innisfail and played junior football in far north Queensland. “Looking at NSW’s team it’s certainly going to help them in terms of ball use and being able to get the ball out to Tom Trbojevic and James Tedesco and the like.”
In reality, though, Slater could not possibly know about something which has never previously occurred. No one can – and isn’t it wonderful.
Not all have the appetite. Many dyed-in-the-wool fans are attached to venues dating back generations, and taking time to come around to the idea that old practices can be renewed somewhere else. Change, as they say, is scary.
Last year, Covid-19 forced the unfathomable when the AFL grand final was played in Brisbane. Even though Richmond’s latest premiership triumph went off without a hitch under lights at the Gabba, the defying of convention was widely detested.
But the seed had been planted, as evidenced by calls to stage the 2021 decider at Optus Stadium after Perth proved over the weekend that it can emulate Dreamtime experience outside of Victoria.
Just as Western Australia’s capital profited richly from a sold-out stadium, an Origin roadshow will inject millions into Townsville’s economy. Mayor Jenny Hill even proposed a half-day public holiday on game day to allow workers in nearby regions time to travel.
The NRL is due on Tuesday to release an extra 2,000 tickets for seats in a temporary grandstand installed at the northern end of the ground, where Birds of Tokyo, Jessica Mauboy and Busby Marou will provide pre-game entertainment.
Locals who do not secure a ticket can still be part of the spectacle, with some planning to participate in the Maroons March to the stadium and then race home to catch the match on TV. You don’t have to be there to be there – the buzz and pomp in your own backyard is enough.
The local council has also unveiled plans to transform the popular Flinders Street into the Caxton Street of the north, with big screens and entertainment set up to cope with the overflow and mirror its Brisbane counterpart famous for its game-day buzz.
Origin live sites have also been built to allow the whole community to watch the game.
In a city with a rugby league heartbeat, at a new stadium where Jonathan Thurston is immortalised in bronze, Townsville is the next logical step towards a less restricted sporting landscape.