State of Origin rose up afresh on Wednesday night and a crowd of 80,512 fans rose up with it. They came from cities and suburbs, country towns and specks on the map, up and down the east coast of Australia. On planes, trains and buses, in cars and cabs, on foot and phone, they argued allegiances all the way to the stadium. At the kick-off, they made a sound to behold: exorcised frustration from pandemic days and deep passion for “the fiercest rivalry in sport”.
Queensland defied injury and underdog status to defeat New South Wales 16-10. Of course to give the men in Maroon longer odds and fewer players is a leg-up. North of the border they thrive on adversity so when Xavier Coates hobbled off, followed by Jeremiah Nanai, Billy Slater’s team lifted. They needed to. Brad Fittler’s team had the edge but still went to half-time 4-6 behind. That’s Origin: not necessarily fair but everything happens for a reason.
Ultimately, six points was the difference. And given the score aggregates of 32 years of contests sat at 2000-1994 in NSW’s favour before this year’s series opener, six points was fitting. It locks the ledger up at 2010-all for Game 2 in Perth on 26 June and neatly captures Origin’s magic for fans and players. For no game enters mythology faster or makes champions greater.
Origin moves at warp speed, the tackles are harder, the feeling is deeper, the deeds more lasting. The images it evokes – Wally Lewis facing up to Mark Geyer in the rain, Steve Mortimer kissing the SCG mud in victory, Benny Elias bleeding all over his mother, Mark Coyne crawling to a miracle try – live forever and fuel an event that is pure entertainment. At its heart, State of Origin brings out the best qualities in young athletes given the honour of representing their state and with it, their families, former teams, coaches and teammates.
Queensland and New South Wales have been playing each other since rugby league began in 1908 but NSW won 75% of the series played until 1956, and then 96.2% of all games until 1981. Money was to blame. Ever since pokies arrived in clubland in 1956, Sydney clubs had thrown money at talent wherever it lay. Paul Hogan famously quipped in 1977 that “every time Queensland produces a good footballer, he finishes up being processed through a New South Wales poker machine”.
So Queensland-born players played for NSW and their dominance killed interstate rivalry. The only way to revive the blood feud in future, claimed former-player-turned journalist Jack Reardon, was to permit Sydney-based Queenslanders to represent their state of origin. “You can take the Queenslander out of Queensland,” howled Maroons officials, “but you can’t take the Queensland out of the Queenslander!” After another 2-0 victory to NSW in 1980 (the second in front of just 1,638 Sydneysiders), an experimental NSW v Queensland “Origin” game was proposed for Lang Park. Vehemently opposed in NSW, it was vigorously promoted in Queensland. Australian captain Bob Fulton predicted “the non-event of the century”.
But Arthur Beetson knew different. A Mandandanji man from Roma, Beetson had in 1973 become the first Indigenous athlete to captain an Australian sports team, and with a single act in Origin 1 – poleaxing his clubmate and friend Mick Cronin – he created modern Origin rivalry. The blood spilt that night became the blueprint for “state v state, mate v mate” and a grudge borne to this day.
Beetson’s principle also bore out in the brighter lights of Origin raising the odds for players. Perform well and you shine all the brighter. Fall short and the spotlight exposes every flaw in your character. Each team had proven champions, big game players picked regardless of form: the speed, guile and vision of rival fullbacks Tedesco and Ponga sparked daring raids all game on Wednesday. But as usual in Origin, maligned players played brilliantly and proven stars fizzled.
No one thought Jack Wighton should be playing except Wighton and coach Fittler. But he scored the Blues’ first try and was a dervish in attack and defence all night. Queensland’s Valentine Holmes was considered a risky selection yet made seven tackles, two of them try-savers, and each one critical to the outcome. Blue Tariq Sims was deemed too old but he ran like a young bull, and almost scored a try. Josh Papalii’s days as Maroons enforcer were on the wane yet his heft knocked Isaah Yeo into tomorrow on the first charge of the game and brutalised NSW in defence before going off after 15 minutes, returning for the final five.
Nathan Cleary laced his boots wrong and everything wobbled off the toe but even on a bad night for the playmaker, he was the arrowhead of the Blues attack as they charged for home. Last series’ Superman, Dane Gagai missed the tackle that led to Wighton’s try and dropped the ball cold on a play shortly after, but when rookie winger Selwyn Cobbo jagged a grubber infield the veteran centre was there to swoop. In Origin, redemption can be a moment away.
Cobbo’s grandfather was Eddie Gilbert, a near-mythic fast bowler from Cherbourg whom Don Bradman considered the quickest he ever faced. Just 19 and with fewer than 20 NRL games under his belt, Cobbo and Jeremiah Nanai, 19, did Artie and Eddie proud ascending in maroon, as did fellow rookies Patrick Carrigan and Reuben Cotter.
Urging the youngsters like a heeler behind the hooves of his cattle was Cameron Munster, a maverick in the Beetson mould. With biker mo shaved and his mullet shorn and bleached, Munster tottered and reeled between the lines, spun in and around attempted tacklers and lay spewing when finally smothered. After splitting the Blues’ line and setting up his captain’s try, his final act was a one-on-one steal that stopped NSW dead.
It didn’t make sense, but it made great entertainment. And as the fans poured back onto the trains and planes, saddled up on the highways home with a fresh batch of memories, victory and defeat were immaterial. A new game was coming where an old rivalry would be reborn.