Every year when State of Origin rolls around it’s like Christmas for rugby league.
Excitement goes up a level, rugby league leads the news bulletins for the right reasons and there’s a kind of electricity in the air.
The games are desperate, played with high quality but at a frantic pace. The dry Queensland winter nights provide for plenty of ball movement, the damper Sydney evenings see more drawn out affairs and recently the addition of a third city has required teams to adapt to foreign conditions.
For the first time in Origin history, the series will be played after the conclusion of the season and held in three consecutive weeks in three different states.
It’s a far cry from its humble beginnings as a last ditch effort to resurrect representative rugby league.
In 1980 Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, AC/DC frontman Bon Scott died in London, Bob Hawke was elected to parliament, Bruce Springsteen released The River, Breaker Morant opened in cinemas, Evonne Goolagong won her second Wimbledon title, the Illawarra Steelers were approved to enter the 1982 competition and State of Origin arrived.
At the time, representative rugby league was in a serious hole. The interstate clashes that saw residents of NSW play residents of QLD were at an all time low while Australia had become the premier international rugby league power.
Outside of the NSWRL, the code needed a shot in the arm.
“It recharged rugby league”
In game two of the interstate clashes in 1980, they played on a Wednesday night at Leichhardt Oval in front of a crowd of 1,500.
Canterbury Bulldogs and New South Wales winger Greg Brentnall talks about his experience at the game in Leichhardt.
“The second state game prior to the Australian side being picked was played at Leichhardt Oval and it was on a Wednesday night and the crowd was something like 1,000 people and it was basically becoming a non-event at that stage.
“Wally Lewis still tells the story that half the crowd left after the Commonwealth Bank Cup curtain raiser was played. It was an interesting time and obviously the competition at that stage was just the NSW competition.”
The interstate clashes had effectively become training runs and NSW had become supremely dominant. The Blues were able to call on Queensland’s best and brightest as they were often recruited to Sydney due to the better pay on offer.
Brentnall says that while the players still took the interstate games seriously, they were really treated as trial matches for the Australian squad that would go on mid-season and end of year tours.
“Prior to the first Origin, I played in the first two interstate games which were played under the old format and they picked the Australian side from there and we toured New Zealand in I think June of that year. The first Origin was just thrown up as an exhibition game and it was poo pooed because of that,” he says.
“There was a lot of groundswell there that the interstate series was losing a bit of its relevance. But initially it was just a selection for the Australian side. So we’d already played the two interstate games prior to picking an Australian side, doing a three week tour to New Zealand. We came back in June and they threw up this exhibition game under the Origin format.”
While the Origin concept received plenty of support north of the border, many of the coaches in the NSWRL opposed the idea. They were mid-season fighting tooth and nail to keep their sides in contention for the finals and they had already seen players depart for interstate matches and a Kangaroos tour.
“There was a lot of anti-feeling particularly from senior coaches. I remember Bob Fulton, he made a statement at that stage that Origin will be the biggest non-event in the history of the game because he was coaching the Roosters who were on top of the competition at that time of course. That meant that quite a few of his profile players were going to be taken out of the competition for what he titled an exhibition game.
“Most of the coaches were anti it. Although Ted Glossop was our NSW coach and he was our Bulldogs coach at that time as well. I think we were running second in the competition at that time. In the long run we ended up winning the grand final in 1980, knocking the Roosters off.
“But the Roosters were the top side at that time and I think all the NSW players were looking more at the end of the season games than looking at this as something that was going to be 40 years down the track, the biggest thing in the game. I guess the game was struggling a little financially too and what it’s generated in that time is just amazing. It was becoming a non-event and whilst it was still an exercise to pick an Australian side, the NSW vs QLD games, it wasn’t terribly competitive at that time,” says Brentnall.
Queensland centre Chris Close says Origin provided representative rugby league the shot in the arm it needed.
“It rechartered representative rugby league in the world. It recharged rugby league in itself. The game was dying, particularly at the elite level. NSW was so dominant and so was Australia from an international point of view that they were losing sponsorship and viewership and the whole cash cow was being eroded. That first Origin game in 1980, it was a real attempt to resurrect the game.”
If Origin failed the game would be at long odds to resurrect representative rugby league in Australia and it’s likely the interstate games would have continued to decrease in relevance.
It probably also would have threatened the future of the game outside NSW.
“The brainchild was between Kevin Humphreys (NSWRL chairman) and Ron McAuliffe (QRL president) and whoever the brainstrust were in those two adjoining camps for both NSW and Queensland and they took a gamble. It was a massive punt. Nobody knew what would happen from ‘80 and that’s why they only played one game in ‘80 and one game in ‘81 that were under the Origin format,” Close says.
Mate versus Mate
Today the mate versus mate tagline is meant to signal club friendships being put aside as teammates go head to head in the Origin arena. In 1980, it was a way for the Sydney media to play down the contest as a reason it wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Parramatta and NSW hooker Steve Edge says the media got the feeling in the Origin camp horribly wrong, saying there was no way he was going to be taking care of teammate Arthur Beetson on the field and vice versa.
“The media at the time were definitely playing it down a bit in that it’s mate against mate, “Beetson will look after Edgey because they play together” and all this type of stuff. “Rocket Reddy, he’ll look after Craig Young.” And I’m thinking, “Mate, you blokes have got absolutely no idea.” There’s a couple of reasons,” says Edge.
“Number one, you pull on a Blue jumper or you pull on a Maroon jumper, there’s no way in the world you’re going to want to let your state down. You’re going to give 120 percent, whatever you can possibly give. Number two there is no way in the world you’re going to let your mate get over the top of you, otherwise you’ve got to live with it the rest of your life. I knew it was on.”
As Edge explains, he was the real victim of Beetson’s first punch in Origin, not club teammate Michael Cronin who is often regarded as receiving that unfortunate honour.
“I launched Arthur Beetson’s book and in his book he says, “We all hear about me belting Mick Cronin but Edgey was the first one I belted.” Which he did. But you sort of anticipate things like that.”
Close agrees, saying he felt the intensity of the Origin matches rise when compared with the interstate clashes.
“That’s pretty noble of Steve to say that because not many of the New South Welshmen who played were saying they took it to seriously and I don’t agree with that, because I was on the field and they were f***ing serious. There’s no doubt about that.
“It’s good to hear that Steve came out and reinforced that notion because they were ready to play. The media were trying to make light of the game, they were trying to I suppose infer that the game wouldn’t be played in a true spirit of representative football because teammates were playing against teammates from both states.
“And they (the media) really went down and were saying it’s ridiculous, it’s mate against mate, they won’t be fair dinkum, it won’t be a genuine contest and I remember I was living in Sydney after that and a couple of the journalists that were there were saying they got bushwhacked really because they didn’t think the game would be played with the same intensity as it was.”
Brentnall says although the Blues were committed to doing their best on the night, some got carried away with the interstate trip. At the time, the furthest sides had to travel for club matches was out to Penrith. There were no interstate trips or even trips to more regional cities. The only time players got to leave Sydney were for the interstate clashes or when representing Australia.
“When they threw up this exhibition game in Queensland, two nights all expenses paid in Queensland. Our longest trip in the competition at that stage was up the highway to Penrith. So when it was thrown up, it was two nights in Brisbane. And we approached it that way, the NSW guys.
“This was like an end of season trip more than the start of something that has turned into an event 40 years later. We went into it very much under-prepared. I still remember the night before, we had quite a few beers, a big seafood banquet and it certainly wasn’t approached with the attitude we should’ve approached it at that time because we thought it was going to be a one-off.”
Brentnall clarifies that he didn’t face any of his Bulldogs teammates in Origin, whereas players like Edge and Cronin for Parramatta and the St George Dragons trio of Graeme Wynn, Craig Young and Robert Stone all faced club teammates who were Queenslanders.
“Of course Beetson, he was playing a fair bit of reserve grade at Parramatta at the time, he was well at the end of his career. The fact that he led the charge and that’s where Edgey I suppose, because he was at Parramatta and Arthur was there as well in 1980 and he was playing little first grade, but when they threw Origin up he would have had Arthur in his ear and probably made it more competitive from his point of view I guess,” Brentnall says.
“If you don’t think we can win, you may as well f*ck off right now”
When the inaugural Origin match is spoken about, Arthur Beetson inevitably enters the conversation. The imposing forward was well and truly wrapping his career up in 1980, having debuted in first grade with Redcliffe in 1964. But there was never any doubt that Beetson would be captaining his home state.
Chris Close, who had grown up watching the great front rower, said it was a privilege to be in the same camp and team as “Big Artie”.
“For us it was very exciting. The game was really an opportunity for us to play with the guys that were down in NSW that were very good players. You didn’t get asked to go down south unless you were doing really well. The likes of the players that were involved in that were high quality like Rod Reddy, John Lang and Rod Morris. All very, very good Queensland players that were down there. At the end of the day I think it was a really exciting time for us to be able to play with those players.
“Then when they named Arthur Beetson captain that was very exciting. There were eight or nine of us in the Queensland squad that were only 21 and we’d all watched Arthur play as kids and then grew up. To have the opportunity to play a game with him really excited everyone. I can remember we talked about it, we were almost giggly with the fact we’d be playing with the great Arthur Beetson.
“He set the tone of that whole preparation at our first training run. For a few of us, I can’t speak for anybody else but me, but certainly it lit a fire in my belly that remains pretty much burning ever since,” Close said.
Speaking of that tone, Beetson was blunt in his message to his Queensland teammates.
“Arthur Beetson told us straight out that he wanted to win. He called us into a circle at training, the first run and I can remember how imposing he was, what a big man he was. It was probably the first time I ever really noticed in comparison to others what a mammoth package he was and he was in pretty good condition too, for a 35 year old,” said the former Queensland centre.
“He was imposing when he addressed us, he looked us all in the eye and just said “You know what, I don’t know about you guys but I’ve come here to win. And I want to tell you that these blokes have got two legs, two eyes and an arsehole. They are just the same as us. If you don’t think we can win, or if you don’t think you can win then you don’t belong here and you may as well f*ck off right now.”
“So when you get addressed by a man with that experience in the game and the presence and charisma that just dripped out of him changed, for me, how I looked at life. I just realised at that moment that there was no challenge that you couldn’t rise to.”
As Brentnall has said, many of the Blues players over-indulged the night before the game and only a few hours before kickoff did they realise they were about to be ambushed.
“I think we arrived up there and we didn’t go with the right attitude. Tommy Raudonikis went for a walk the day of the game and he said “There’s something going on here. We’re coming into an ambush.” He could get the feel around town of what was happening with blokes abusing him in the street whereas previously those things didn’t happen. There was always a competitive approach to the interstate games but there was never to the extent that they were on an even footing with us. He came back and said “We’re maybe approaching this a little too casually.” It was too late then, we were already there.
“When we pulled up at Lang Park, and in those days the bus would pull up out the front of the main bar and you had to go through to get the dressing rooms. The obvious feeling from the number of people that were there and the abuse that we were getting, there was a real groundswell that something was going to happen here and we were coming into an ambush.
“Which obviously Arthur had helped to generate and that feeling that they’d been downtrodden for so many years and beaten by Queensland guys who were playing NSW and I think that led to a crescendo on that first night. That’s where I still feel if NSW had won that first game, it might never have been the following 40 years, or it certainly wouldn’t have reached the heights that Origin has got to.”
Edge adds that the first game set the scene for the following four decades.
“There were 40,000 screaming Queenslanders there and about 15 of us in Blue, so you knew the hostilities were going to be there. They’d imported a referee from England to referee it. But there was no way in the world we thought it would be just a bit of fun. There’s 40,000 people, they hadn’t won in 30-odd years and we were going to do our best to make sure they hadn’t won in 31 years but they were too good on the night.
“They got the luck of the draw. Sometimes the ball bounces their way. It was great. It set the scene for what Origin is today, that particular game. It’s mate against mate and it’s full on.”
Close said the intensity rose a lot from the traditional interstate clashes.
“I can tell you, I played in the interstate before Origin came into it and the intensity probably rose by 10 or 15 times what the interstate games were like. On the back of that we as players could feel that things had changed. It was really, really tangible that rugby league was relaunched. It was on its way again, it was massive and I think from that day ‘til this it’s still the highest viewership of any television program in Australia’s history. It’s little wonder it proved to be such a success.”
These days players are paid tens of thousands of dollars for playing Origin, but back in 1980 the competitors were lucky if they received $100 for the match.
“My wife was going through some things a couple of years ago and she found a receipt and I got $75 in expenses which was all we got for the couple of days we spent in Brisbane. Now you look at what’s eventuated in the last 40 years and they’re on, the likes of Cameron Smith, $30,000 a game. So it’s amazing what’s happened,” Brentnall said.
Despite Origin beginning to become a success following the 1980 match, there were still issues with eligibility that even persisted into recent series. Close explains that after moving to Sydney in 1982 he ended up representing NSW City Firsts (City Origin) and NSW selectors were trying to poach him for State of Origin.
“In ‘83 I was actually representing the City Firsts (NSW City Origin) and then in 1984 I played for City Firsts. So it was still unclear and there wasn’t a lot of clarity around State of Origin eligibility and who could play and who couldn’t. We played a City vs Country game at the Sydney Cricket Ground and after that game, and in those days to make that team was the equivalent of making the NSW team but it was the City team.
“I remember in the dressing sheds after the game there were NSW selectors and QLD selectors that were there. Ernie Hammerton was the chairman of Australian selectors at the time and I’m pretty sure Dud Beattie was the chairman of the Queensland selectors and there was a bit of a huddle and I remember that Ernie Hammerton said to me, “So Chris, if you don’t get picked to play for Queensland, would you play for NSW?” and before I could answer Bert Quinn, who was a Queensland selector, said “He won’t have to f***ing worry about it, nor will you c***s.””
Following that confrontation at the SCG the eligibility criteria was clarified for both Origin and the City vs Country game, preventing Queenslanders from playing in what would become the traditional NSW trial game.
With Origin came the glorification of brawls, still used in promotion of the games today despite the NRL outlawing punching, but Edge said he’s happy to see the fights left in the past given how much more physical the game has become.
“Once you’re off the field, unless someone had done something really, really bad, it was just part of the deal. In those days it was a very tough game, there was probably a lot more illegal stuff that people could get away with. But having said that, it was just part of the game. The players today, they mightn’t have to handle the same illegal stuff that we did but the hits that they put up with now is just unbelievable.
“Slightly different game in those days, but now they’re full time. They’re fitter, they’re bigger, they’re stronger and that’s their total focus. But as I said, it set the scene for what Origin is today and fortunately the blues (fights) and all that type of stuff doesn’t happen nowadays.”