What makes State of Origin live so special in Australia?
It’s a big question that is both very simple to answer and quite impossible to explain all at the same time.
Which is began with a very brave gamble in 1980 by Kevin Humphreys and Ron McAuliffe to try and breathe life back into interstate football has morphed into a sporting juggernaut.
The magic of this question is in the names … Langer, Beetson, Raudonikis, Fittler, Lewis, Lockyer, Mortimer, Daley, Thurston, Johns and Smith.
Also the magic of this tournament is in the games … the first Blues breakthrough in ’85, the first ever at Lang Park, the first at the MCG in ’94.
The last time the State of Origin stage graced by The King and waved goodbye with his children in his arms, when Freddy waved goodbye with a try and a thumping win, Locky’s farewell happened when his great mate JT emerged from the sheds in a wheelchair to share the memorable moment.
In every year we are caught up in State of Origin’s spell, starting with the selection speculation round, then the anticipation round and finally the exhilaration of three ripping contests between the best players on the planet which makes it special.
Way back in 1980 when we tuned our TV to watch that first ever match at Lang Park to see what this State of Origin live caper was all about.
What for… To see great whether Big Artie, 35 years young, could turn back the Blue tide and avenge years of Maroon misery.
Or would the great Tom Terrific and the pride of NSW with great record carry on a dominance that had seen the men from Australia’s south of the border win 52 of the previous 60 interstate clashes.
Would State of Origin live be a flash in the pan? Would fans embrace the concept of State of Origin Live?
Thankfully, the answer of this question turned out to be a resounding ‘no’ and ‘yes’ and four decades later we can revel in its success and reflect on a cavalcade of magic moments.
Here is an extract from 40 years of State of Origin live: The Memories, The Magic, The Moments, written by Martin Lenehan from NRL.com senior journalist and former Rugby League Week editor. It will be on sale soon but you can pre-order a copy of this book at NRLshop.com.
The Coaches of State of Origin
The equal parts are mate, man manager and motivator, the coaches, who have prospered and survived in the State of Origin live pressure cooker have chosen to teach the history of the jersey rather than complicated game plans at all.
“Origin is a lot more about the camaraderie and connectivity and you have to create an environment where that connection is very strong,” says by Wayne Pearce, the former Blues mentor. One of only three men who is the feature in a series clean sweep as a player and as a coach, alongside revered Maroons Paul Vautin and Mal Meninga.
Successful State of Origin coaches have been very good at understanding that principle. The folklore of State of Origin is something the coaches all let their players understand about it.
And when this matter comes to the folklore of footy’s fiercest rivalry, who is the best to inspire Generation Next than the 13th Immortal Meninga, who was there on their opening night in 1980 and pulled on the maroon jersey 32 times in his glittering career at all.
“Mal has that aura, and it grew and grew the more series he kept winning as our coach,” says Darren Lockyer.
“There was already a level of respect for his playing deeds, then throw in winning all those series and the respect skyrocketed. Mal is really good at motivating blokes for a common cause. He’s a big man and he’s imposing so when he speaks, people listen.”
A decade or fan before Meninga’s remarkable and memorable reign began, “Fatty” Vautin had steered an unheralded, unfashionable and largely unrecognizable Maroons team to one of the most celebrated series wins in the history of State of Origin.
Just minus their Super League stars and with a coach renowned more for his Footy Show than his footy brain, the 1995 Maroons defied all the odds and the doomsayers to sweep a Blues side brimming with very big names.
No fewer than nine players debuted for team Queensland in the Game One, a dour, tryless affair which Vautin’s men won by 2-0.
On to the iconic MCG ground where fists and insults flew but despite all the Blues’ bluster it was the underdogs who wrapped up that series with a 20-12 win.
By that time, they hit home turf for the “dead” rubber, you could have forgiven team Queensland for dropping their intensity, but instead they raised the bar higher to run in four tries and run out 24-16 victory over NSW.
Most of the pundits of the team were left scratching their heads but for Trevor Gillmeister, the captain, there was never any doubt that his former State of Origin roomie Vautin could lead his team with this motley Maroon crew to a life-changing triumph.
“I told Fatty we wouldn’t beat them with talent because they had nine or 10 Kangaroos, so we would have to beat them on ticker and having a go and bonding,” says Gillmeister.
The veteran second-rower famously climbed out of his hospital bed to take the field in game three because he couldn’t stomach the idea of letting his mates down at any cost.
“Fatty said ‘old school bonding?’ and I said ‘yes, that’s the only way’.
He got Chris Close up to speak about what State of Origin live meant to him and he got six words out and had to sit down again, he could not talk any more after.
“Robbie O’Davis was sitting beside me and said, ‘Give me a jersey, I want to play now’.”
And play they did, like men possessed and like no one really thought they could – except the funnyman with the Midas touch and the hardman with the common touch.