“We’ve seen plenty of this in Origin, this is one of the best.” So said Ray ‘Rabbits’ Warren after one of the most famous fights State of Origin has ever seen in Game 2 of the 1995 Series. To call this gratuitous violence would be somewhat disingenuous. For, fighting along with crunching defence, breathtaking attacking play and almost incomparable intensity are the very components which saw the Series grasp the attention of New South Wales, Queensland and latterly the entire of Australia.
The State of Origin series began in 1980 but New South Wales and Queensland have engaged in an Interstate rivalry dating back to the early 1900s. Previously a player would represent the state in which his current club team was based. So, at the time if a player plied his trade with, say, South Sydney -despite being born and raised in Queensland- he would represent New South Wales. Soon, however, proud Queenslanders decided they wanted the opportunity to represent their home State. So, the rules were tweaked and representation came to be based on where a player’s first senior club was. Now, exiled New South Welshmen and Queenslanders would get the opportunity to represent their State in a mid-season series that would pitch club mate against club mate. The concept was met with considerable scepticism as are most novel ideas and the majority of informed observers felt they were in for a soulless contest, devoid of any real meaning- like the Railway Cup nowadays. Enter Arthur Beetson, Queensland captain but earning his regular crust from the Western Sydney club Parramatta. Testing the pulse of the game Beetson smashed New South Wales Graham Wynn to trigger an all in brawl –which would become a staple of Origin– and light the fuse on a bitter rivalry that still rages on thirty-five years later. Perhaps worried that the animosity would be fleeting Beetson then unloaded an uppercut on Parramatta teammate Mick Cronin. What followed was a wild series which brought with it the realisation that friends and colleagues would not be spared. For the chip on the shoulder Queenslanders in particular it was time for some serious payback. The fighting and brawls truly became a major part of State of Origin. The Aussies, of course, love a dust-up and the tendency of the opposite number on each team pairing up in a digging match made the brawls quite the spectacle.
In 2013 the National Rugby League (NRL) realising that Origin was gaining popularity outside of Australia decided that the fighting had to end. A punch thrown now means a visit to the sin bin and at the breakneck speed of these games being down to 12 men means hell on the body. The problem is that the average rugby league fan was absolutely disgusted by the removal of, indisputably, one of the most compelling aspects of Origin. Not so much the fighting but the lingering sense that things were set to boil over at any moment. To grow outside of its heartlands, Origin probably had to eradicate the brawling. Sure it’s a visceral, guiltily thrilling sight but to grow the game –or grow commercially- it was deemed that the melees needed to be stamped out. In truth and in time the change will be appreciated for the better.
The games themselves have produced some truly iconic moments, many of which have involved the recently retired Darren Lockyer, a Queensland maroon during his playing days. Queenslanders love for rugby league is unmatched and such is the admiration and love for their star players that Lockyer and Wally Lewis –the original Origin legend– that both have had statues of themselves erected -by others of course- outside Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. In this part of the world, statues are reserved for the departed which seems largely pointless as those honoured never find out. We prefer the Australian way. ‘Locky’ (38) and Wally (55) are far from pushing daisies and what harm if the people of Queensland show two of their humble greats just how much they mean to them.
This year’s series has been deprived of perhaps its brightest light in the form of the freakishly talented, former Blue, Jarryd Hayne. The ‘Hayne Plane’ has decided to try his hand with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL and the fact he has even made their roster is a testament to his extraordinary skills. Meanwhile, current Wallaby full-back Israel Folau soared and starred as a teenager for the Maroons. In terms of the current stars on show keep an eye out for Queensland halfback Johnathan Thurston –a manipulator of time with the ball in hand- and his teammate, the freakish Greg Inglis, scorer of this try. Hell-bent on stymieing Thurston will be Beau Scott, a man who dwells in that murky realm where referees hold little sway or significance. Scott got to JT last year and really knocked the lynchpin off his game. Keep an eye on that one.
One of the most appealing aspects of State of Origin is the emphatically Australian commentary team. During a week in which we sadly lost Bill O’ Herlihy –a welcome presence in millions of Irish sitting rooms for nigh on forty years- you realise once more the true importance of affable, knowledgeable sports broadcasters. Ray ‘Rabbits’ Warren –the bombastic voice of Australian rugby league- heads a broadcast team comprised of the aforementioned Lewis, the balanced New South Wales veteran Peter Stirling and the infectiously passionate, partisan Blues legend Phil ‘Gus’ Gould. Warren and Gould joust verbally in the manner of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Lewis ardently flies the flag for Queensland, while Stirling attempts to keep some semblance of objectivity to proceedings. The golden age of commentators as stars in their own right seems to be sadly dying out but Warren truly belongs to the old breed, a man who genuinely lives the game and is inextricably linked to its very core.
This year’s series gets under way in Sydney’s ANZ Stadium today. The series then moves on to Melbourne –Victoria is traditionally an Aussie Rules stronghold but again the NRL have wisely tried to widen the game’s appeal- before the last leg in Brisbane, where hopefully the series will be on the line. New South Wales won last year, ending Queensland’s Lockyer led unprecedented eight-year dominance. In 2006, the first year of the Maroon’s reign, there were concerns –predominantly from Sydney- that the northerners couldn’t provide a challenge and that the series was teetering on the brink of irrelevance. Soon New South Wales saw themselves hungry and chastened. This year’s series is wide open. Blues enforcer, Greg Bird –the archetypal opposing player you hate the most yet would love to have in your team- misses out as he’s away doing charity work. Nah. He’s suspended for six weeks. Hard as titanium captain Paul Gallen also misses out so the balance shifts ever so slightly towards Queensland.
The Maroons, historically the more flamboyant side, are famed for pulling last gap victories seemingly from a lucky bag so the Blues will look to keep it tight and maintain dominance through their monster pack. The aging Maroons however, like Custer, have one last stand in them.
Trust us, you do not have to be a fan of rugby to appreciate this one. As Ray Warren himself said, “It’s a violent game, understood, but I don’t use words like brutality. Because there’s a beauty about it.” Watch and you’ll realise just how accurate those words are.
Our Pick: Game 1 – Queensland by 2:
Series 2-1 Queensland
Game 1: Today 11 a.m.
Game 2: 17th June 11 a.m.
Game 3: 8th July 11 a.m.