June 2020

The bridge to Origin greatness

Origin is littered with stories of the men who did the hard yards.

The path to greatness in a team sport is often littered with the stories of champions, of legends, whose names are passed down through the generations. 

They steal the spotlight, they have their likenesses carved into bronze, their names adorn medals and for the very revered their names can also be found on stadium grandstands.

But for every Peter Sterling there is a Paul Taylor, for every Greg Inglis, a Dane Nielsen and for every Cameron Smith, a Shaun Berrigan.

These are the players selected to do a job, who are often moved in and out of sides without great fanfare and often become the answer to an obscure trivia question in the years that follow.

Queensland, during their period of dominance from 2006-2017 (one series loss in 2014) possessed one of the most dominant teams in sporting history. One series loss in eleven is approaching All Blacks in the Bledisloe levels of dominance.

But while the Maroons dined out on the exploits of Slater, Inglis, Cronk, Thurston, Smith and Lockyer, there were guys like Paul Bowman, Matt Sing, Matt Bowen, Jacob Lillyman, Dallas Johnson, Neville Costigan and Aidan Guerra holding up their ends of the bargain.

This article is actually borne out of a piece by cricket writer Jarrod Kimber who discusses the Australian cricket team’s penchant for chasing the potential 10 year player over the seasoned pro in recent years.

It can be a trap teams fall into when trying to recapture former glories. The pursuit of those handful of special players that often leads to the continued trying and failing of young players, not prepared for the rigours of Origin football.

Finding a balance

There was some luck for Queensland that a crop of five exceptional footballers arrived on the scene at the same time as New South Wales’ legends retired. 

Queensland understood the value of a seasoned professional on rugby league’s biggest stage. From 2006 to 2017 they debuted 41 players. The average age was 24. The average number of games they would go on to play for the Maroons would be eight, with that number being skewed by the likes of Nate Myles, Darius Boyd, Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk.

Removing them would leave the average number of games at six. Two series. That was the Origin career expectancy of the average Maroons player in their decade of dominance. Those players were selected to plug a gap, fill a role and get the job done.

It’s similar to how the Australian men’s cricket team functioned in the 1990s and early 2000s. Legends held their spots and players who’d otherwise have had a long term Test career simply flitted in and out of the side as injury cover.

Ultimately, it would be those bridge players who laid the groundwork for their more illustrious companions to lay waste to the men from south of the border in the Origin arena.

To play Origin, there generally has to be something special about you. At the very least, you have to be a tough and committed competitor. Often experience is a big indicator for success at that level. 

Ben Hannant would only play 12 games for the Maroons, but he’d played close to 70 games in the NRL, had won a Premiership and was a starting prop for the Broncos by the time he represented Queensland.

David Shillington had played close to 90 games and was a starting prop for Canberra when he ran out for the Maroons. He’d debut for Australia just months after playing for Queensland.

The Queensland selectors found the perfect balance. Smith, Slater, Lockyer, Thurston, Inglis and Cronk were constants in the line up. Supported by stalwarts such as Steve Price, Petero Civoniceva, Tonie Carroll, Nate Myles, Sam Thaiday and Darius Boyd, they had the backbone of a successful squad.

With the backbone set in stone, the Queensland selectors could afford to swap out the odd centre and winger, along with locks, backrowers, bench forwards and utilities without upsetting the side’s chemistry.

New South Wales was not so lucky.

If you think the Australian men’s cricket team’s scramble to replace the likes of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting was bad, then New South Wales’ hunt for a competent halves pairing was near diabolical.

Mitchell Pearce, Brett Finch, Jamie Lyon, Jamie Soward, Todd Carney, Trent Hodkinson, Jarrod Mullen and James Maloney were just some of the names to fill the six and seven jerseys.

And despite having a Dally M-winning fullback in their squad in Jarryd Hayne, numerous coaches played him on the wing or in the centres.

The NSW squads in this period lacked cohesion, a killer instinct and the solidity to flick players in and out without affecting the side’s chemistry.

It’s tough being a forward

It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of the bridge players are forwards. It’s often easier for coaches to move forwards in and out of sides without attracting too much controversy. There’s also a likelihood a forward’s representative career is shorter given the beating their bodies take so their position becomes more of a revolving door.

Backs are often the players coaches stake their reputations on. They are the players often tasked with winning games, producing the points and they’re the ones that cop the most criticism when they lose.

A forward can be injured, replaced and never seen again at Origin level. Very few can instantly shift back into the side. A handful had that ability – Matt Scott, Steve Price, Petero Civoniceva – but the majority, once they were out of the side faced an uphill battle to return.

It’s generally easier for a back to find their way back into a side. Mitchell Pearce has been dropped and recalled seven times in his career for a variety of reasons. Most forwards aren’t provided those chances. 

The 10 year players

As Jarrod Kimber writes in his piece, the major driving force when it comes to picking a young, inexperienced player for the biggest stage is the chance of unearthing the next long-term player and making full use of their talents.

At club level, it’s those players who become a constant force for a decade. At Origin level, a five year player will do just as well. 

A 10 year player in Origin is a rarity. But it’s still what drives selectors to take a punt on a kid. Sometimes it works, other times it fails spectacularly.

Mitchell Pearce was supposed to be the 10 year halfback for the Blues who would lead them to Origin greatness. He was thrown to the wolves at the age of 19 when he replaced an injured Peter Wallace. His representative career never really recovered.

Then you have the likes of Brad Fittler and Darren Lockyer who made their Origin debuts at the ages of 18 and 20 respectively. Lockyer’s first series was for Queensland during the Super League war.  Both set games records for their states – Fittler’s is yet to be beaten – and enjoy a legacy of Origin greatness.

In many respects the representative career trajectories of Fittler and Lockyer as opposed to Pearce is indicative of the sides they debuted in. The older pair featured in sides ladened with Origin talent and experience.

Pearce debuted in a side bereft of success for nearly three series and while still featuring some ageing Blues legends, he was asked to guide the side instead of being mentored by older players.

The future of Origin

Recently the likes of Payne Haas, Daniel Saifiti, David Fifita and Kalyn Ponga have been handed Origin debuts in the infancy of their NRL careers. All have so far acquitted themselves well.

This era looks to be one of the most competitive Origin eras in the past 20 years. There are no future immortals currently on the field, no one team possesses an abundance of superstars that isn’t matched by their opponents.

Queensland is yet to win a series without their superstars of previous series, while New South Wales continues its hunt for a long-term halves pairing. 

After 40 years of Origin, the side that establishes itself with the best mix of youth, experience and talent will set itself up for the next era of dominance.

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