May 2021

Andrew Johns: Queensland’s Baba Yaga

Andrew Johns is sent an SOS by Ricky Stuart and he returns to haunt Queensland. To this day, his performance remains a benchmark.

The Blues and Maroons trade blows on rugby league’s biggest stage. New South Wales seeks to take a one match lead in the 2005 series. A win, here at Suncorp, would see the Blues in prime position to secure their third straight series victory at home in game two.

After 20 minutes of the traditional State of Origin softening up period Ty Williams scores for Queensland to add to the two penalty goals already converted.

The Maroons head to the sheds up 13-0 at half time and quickly race to 19-0 shortly after the resumption.

In Origin, these leads are rarely given up. New South Wales are without the genius of the retired Brad Fittler and the injured Andrew Johns.


The responsibility for marshalling the Blues falls upon Danny Buderus, Brett Kimmorley and Trent Barrett.

While they’re not immortals, they manage to kickstart New South Wales and see their side hit the lead, 20-19, with fewer than 10 minutes left on the clock.

Rookie Maroons halfback Johnathan Thurston begins to build his own Origin legacy by slotting a field goal when his more experienced partner in Darren Lockyer couldn’t.

At 20-all and the 80 minutes up, this Origin match heads to golden point extra time.

Three minutes in and the Blues are working it off their own line. Buderus goes to Kimmorley who angles towards the sideline before straightening and trying to pass as he hits the line.

His attempted cut-out ball is read by Matt Bowen.

“Intercept for Bowen,” yells Channel Nine commentator Ray Warren as the diminutive Cowboys fullback races away to hand the Maroons a one-nil lead, and their best chance at breaking the stranglehold the Blues have on Origin.

Brett Kimmorley is surely no longer an option at halfback for the Blues. In the Origin arena a player’s blushes aren’t spared.

You live by the sword, or you die by the sword.

Selection headaches

With Kimmorley out, Blues coach Ricky Stuart opts for the pairing of Trent Barrett and Braith Anasta.

There are whispers of the legendary Andrew Johns becoming available. But they’re just whispers.

The Newcastle captain has spent the better part of two seasons injured. 2003 saw him break his neck while in 2004 he tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

“Joey” had played just 19 games across two years heading into 2005.

And things didn’t get much better when he clashed with the Warriors’ Jerome Ropati in round six and broke his jaw.

Like John Wick retiring from his assassin days, Johns seems a long way from the representative arena.

Queensland worries

The Maroons are known for their “Origin spirit”. They’ve claimed it ever since Arthur Beetson punched club teammates Steve Edge and Michael Cronin in the first game in 1980 and held the shield until 1985.

But there’s one thing that weakens that Origin spirit. He wears Nike boots, plays for Newcastle and dons a Blue number seven jersey.

He’s Queensland’s version of Baba Yaga.

By 2005 Johns establishes himself as one of the greatest players of all time. Two premierships and three Dally M medals put him at the top of the tree.

And Queensland? Well Queensland are terrified of him.

An interesting wrinkle in this series is that the Maroons coach, Michael Hagan, is also Johns’ club coach.

He needs Johns to revive the Knights’ season. He’s also aware of what Johns can do to the Maroons should he be fit and available for Origin selection.

The comeback

In a bid to return to full fitness for his beloved Knights, Johns is sent to the Queensland Academy of Sport on the recommendation of none other than Wayne Bennett.

The halfback is put through what he calls the most rigorous training of his career.

If this part of the story appeared in a movie then you can assume it would look something like a Rocky training montage.

Except it’s Andrew Johns lifting weights and doing sprints in the Queensland sun rather than climbing snow capped mountains and lifting bags of rocks in Siberia.

Johns’ return to the NRL doesn’t exactly go to plan. His Knights face the Broncos on the same ground he broke his jaw and the scores are locked at 10-10 at half time.

Brisbane come out in the second half and run away 34-16 winners.

Little suggests Johns will be returning to the Origin arena.

SOS to one future Immortal

The Blues squad is in Dubbo preparing for their do or die game two clash against the Maroons. They need to win to keep the series alive.

During training new halfback Trent Barrett succumbs to injury.

With few other options for the number seven, Ricky Stuart picks up the phone and calls Johns.

He’s asking a man that has played one game in seven weeks and hasn’t played Origin since 2003 to return and lead New South Wales to victory.

Johns dusts off the sledgehammer, heads down to his basement and breaks apart the concrete that conceals his Origin jersey.

For the Blues, their saviour is here. For the Maroons, Baba Yaga is coming. And he can’t be stopped.

In Queensland, confidence turns to anxiety and nervousness. Coach Michael Hagan knows what’s coming. After all, he’d helped orchestrate it.

He’d helped organise Johns’ visits to the QAS and he’d been the one to give words of encouragement to the halfback when he was down on confidence.

Just like Victor Frankenstein, he’d given life to something which he could not control and would seek to destroy him.

“I’ve got this sinking feeling in my gut. I remember the feeling as soon as the news came through. Those fears ended up being pretty well founded,” Hagan tells

Confident Blues

It’s rare for the team that trails in an Origin series to be the more confident of the two sides. But Andrew Johns’ arrival into camp sparked life into New South Wales.

“Straight away, when we went down to training with him (Johns) for the first time, you could tell there was a different feel at training,” says Blues backrower Nathan Hindmarsh in a documentary.

“I’ve never been involved in a training session where I’ve seen the tempo and the intensity rise so much, because of one player,” remembers Blues coach Ricky Stuart.

“He was the best in the world at the time. We knew he was going to be their go-to man in attack,” says Queensland enforcer Michael Crocker.

Game Two

The Blues enter a packed out Stadium Australia at Sydney Olympic Park to the raucous cheers of their home fans who are no doubt buoyed by the man in the number seven jersey.

The Maroons, meanwhile, face a chorus of boos.

15 minutes into the first half and Johns takes the ball 40 metres from Queensland’s line. He drifts to his right before hooking the ball back towards the uprights.

What happens next would be considered lucky by most other halfbacks. You can’t predict the bounce of an egg shaped ball. Well, you shouldn’t be able to anyway.

But Johns perfectly weights and directs a kick that sees the ball bounce twice before hitting the left upright and coming to rest just short of the goal line for Blues fullback Anthony Minichiello to swoop in and open the scoring.

Queensland strikes back twice to lead 12-8 going into half time.

Surely the Maroons haven’t managed to contain Johns? Surely the Maroons’ boogeyman will reveal himself in the second term?

As Ray Warren said in commentary, “Cometh the hour. Cometh the man.”

Almost as if a switch is flicked, Andrew Johns begins orchestrating the game to do as he commands.

First is a 40/20 belted down field.

Next is a play down New South Wales’ right edge that sees Anthony Minichiello crash over and put the Blues ahead.

It’s now Billy Slater’s turn to deal with a trademark Johns spiralling bomb which he fails to grasp.

Steve Menzies is over in the right corner after Johns puts Craig Wing into space with a cut-out pass and the Blues’ lead grows.

Johns is in God mode now. There is no stopping him. The opposition just has to try and survive.

Queensland can’t do that.

After peppering Queensland’s left edge, Johns heads to their right edge. He fields a pass from Braith Anasta, drifts slightly to his left then bullets a pass onto the chest of Matt Cooper who finds Mark Gasnier.

The Dragons connection races up field with Cooper icing the play in the left corner.

“Johns again. Johns is dominating,” Rabs says in his inimitable way.

20 minutes to go and Queensland threatens a comeback. Matt Bowen slices through to bring the scores to 26-16.

Johns isn’t having it though. Five metres from Queensland’s line Danny Buderus shovels the ball to Johns who heads right, before pivoting and coming back to his left where the Maroons have left a gaping hole to allow Joey to send his Newcastle teammate over.

32-22 final score.

1-1 in the series.

Decider in Brisbane.

Back in club land

After watching his club halfback tear apart the Maroons, Michael Hagan now reunites with Johns for Newcastle as they face the Penrith Panthers in round 16.

Penrith’s side is fairly stacked with the likes of Rhys Wesser, Craig Gower, Preston Campbell and Luke Priddis on the team sheet.

They race out to a 14-0 half time lead before Johns rallies his side and Newcastle snatch a 24-28 victory.

However, like most Origin periods, there is very little interest in club games unless positions are up for grabs or there are injuries.

With one club game under his belt, Johns heads back into camp to prepare for the Blue assault on the Maroon fortress of Suncorp stadium.

Game Three

The Maroons head into game three facing a supremely confident New South Wales side led by a highly driven Andrew Johns.

Queensland may have well killed his dog and stolen his car, because this game becomes Johns’ crowning glory and ensures he will eventually become an Immortal.

But the match doesn’t start with the Blues on the attack. Instead the Maroons set up camp on the New South Wales goal line. 

For nine minutes the Maroons are peppering the New South Wales defence and the men from south of the border hold them out.

Then Anthony Minichiello pounces on an errant grubber from Darren Lockyer and races up field to be caught by Matt Bowen.

An ensuing penalty hands the Blues an unlikely 2-0 lead and seemingly unshackles Johns.

On the attack Buderus scoops the ball up to Johns on the right edge who rifles a pass onto the chest of a barnstorming Braith Anasta and the Blues are suddenly up 8-0.

Like unnamed henchmen getting disposed of by John Wick, Johns begins slicing apart the Queensland defence.

A cross field bomb to New South Wales’ right edge lands in the arms of Mark Gasnier.

Next, Johns is dancing, right foot, left foot, holding off defenders and finding Minichiello who flings the ball out to Matt King who is over in the corner.

18-0 half time.

He picks up where he left off. Right side again and Matt King is in for his second of the night.

Now Queensland are panicking. Matt Bowen loses the ball in a kick return. Who picks it up? Johns. He finds Buderus, onto Nathan Hindmarsh, out to Cooper and into the hands of Timana Tahu who crosses in the left corner.

10 minutes later and King is in for his third try of the night.

Two late consolation tries to the Maroons do little to curb the celebrations of the men in blue.

They’ve done it. New South Wales have overcome a 1-0 deficit in the series to win a decider at Suncorp Stadium and secure their third consecutive Origin title.


Following the series win Johns leads Newcastle on a six match winning streak from round 20 to round 25.

There would, however, be no finals series.

2006 is a different situation. Johns returns to full fitness, playing 22 matches across the season and hints at a renaissance towards the back end of his career. Newcastle qualifies for the finals, beating Manly in week one before being thumped by Brisbane in week two.

2007 starts with the promise of building on 2006. Unfortunately for Johns in round three his career ends. A neck injury sees the champion halfback who, less than two years prior had run rings around the Maroons, forced into retirement, unable to give a true farewell to the game.

Johns’ shadow on the game becomes a long one.

Newcastle struggle to replace the Immortal. Few teams ever do. Just ask Parramatta. They’re hoping they’ve found the answer in Mitchell Moses 30 years after the retirement of Peter Sterling.

New South Wales meanwhile will not win another Origin series until 2014. 

Johns’ retirement heralds the beginning of a Maroons era when legend upon legend is called up for Queensland and etches their name in the record books.

It’s not until Cameron Smith retires from representative football in 2018 that Origin balances out.

North of the border and Johns remains persona non grata. He’s still booed at Suncorp, still heckled by Queenslanders.

But in many ways that’s the ultimate compliment. 16 years after he drove the nails into the Maroons’ 2005 Origin campaign coffin and he remains a knife in the side of Queensland.

In a very rugby league way, there is no higher praise for a player.

Unlike John Wick, there is no chance of Johns being forced out of retirement once again. But that thing – it still scares Queensland.


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