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Our story, as told by Queensland Rugby League historian Steve Ricketts.

The beginning of Australia's greatest sporting rivalry

State of Origin… it all began with Queensland Rugby League president Senator Ron McAuliffe's mission to convince New South Wales to allow Queensland-born players to 'come home' and wear the Maroons jersey.

Under the residential system, NSW, often with Queenslanders in starring roles, had won every interstate series between 1960 and 1980. Queensland Rugby League was a laughing stock south of the border.

But what connects the whole of Queensland? From the smallest cattle yard to some of the tallest buildings in Queen Street?

League, before Origin, was the number one football code in Queensland because of the hard work and wisdom of your predecessors.

Another factor was the regularity of tours, particularly by British and Kiwi sides, but also by the French, who produced marvelous teams between 1950 and 1980. The first three French sides to Australia - 1951, '55 and 1960 - did not lose a series.

You have to remember that televised rugby league only became a big thing in the 1970s, so the fact touring international sides took elite level league to places like Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Toowoomba and Townsville, on a regular basis, made our sport unrivalled as the winter football code of choice.

Soccer tours were few and far between; Australian rules was confined largely to Brisbane and the Gold Coast and rugby union tours were largely confined to Sydney and Brisbane, because league ruled in the bush.

One of the great strengths of league is its history, and to a large degree, that history revolves around its working class origins. In fact, in the 1960s, in Sydney, league was advertised as 'The Working Man's Game'.

That working class ethos is one of the reasons the game hasn't grown much outside its starting points.

Union spread throughout the British Empire and beyond, because its adherents were generally better connected and more likely to get overseas diplomatic or business posts.

The game's number one status in Queensland is not something that can be taken for granted.

AFL has deep pockets and a missionary zeal; our changing demographics should benefit soccer, while union will always have a profile because of its international component.

Now, as you forge a new way forward, it would be negligent not to acknowledge, and learn from, the past. Some of the most influential administrators in Queensland history have been Harry Sunderland, McAuliffe and Ross Livermore.

When it comes to Origin, McAuliffe was key.

McAuliffe, an orphan, raised at Sandgate, believed the best committee was a committee of three, with one on leave and the other ill.

In 1954, he became joint secretary of a united BRL and QRL. The following year the QRL was granted a 21-year lease of Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) and McAuliffe predicted it one day would become a 60,000 capacity stadium. The QRL effectively had control of Lang Park until 1989.

In 1959, McAuliffe resigned his post, to run the Kirrabelle Hotel (now Coolangatta Sands) on the Gold Coast, but he returned to the QRL in 1970.

By then the poker machine-backed Sydney clubs were mounting raid after raid on Queensland talent, and the Maroons had not won a series against the Blues in the decade since McAuliffe's departure. Something had to be done.

In 1971, 20 players, headed by current QRL chairman, Bruce Hatcher, were chosen for a special training squad. Wayne Bennett, Greg Veivers, John Lang and Des Morris were some of the other members of the squad.

For eight weeks the players lived in the dressing rooms at Lang Park, and were put through gruelling physical and psychological challenges. The last two weeks, the players were allowed out a couple of nights, but they had to be in by 10pm. 

Des Morris and a few others got back late and had to scale the fence. Eight car loads of police turned up, because they thought Lang Park was under siege.

Queensland lost all three matches against NSW that year, and won only one of the next 24 matches against the Blues, before the first Origin in 1980. There were two draws.

In 1980, thanks to McAuliffe, Queensland, for the first time, had equal representation on the national selection panel. He always stood up for Queensland, and got under the skin of NSW officials many times, with calls from south of the border to cite him. On one occasion he threatened to withdraw Queensland from Australian Rugby League, when Manly-Warringah refused to play the Brisbane representative side at Lang Park, with a Queensland referee.

McAuliffe got his way. He took a massive gamble with Origin. It was the last throw of the dice. If Queensland lost, it was the end of interstate football. All that would matter, would be the Sydney premiership.

McAuliffe put indigenous hero, Artie Beetson and later, Wally Lewis, on a pedestal, and they delivered for him in those crucial years in the early 1980s… Artie first as skipper and then as coach, and Lewis as skipper.

The rest, as they say, is history.

State of Origin here to stay: The 1980s

In the late 1970s, iconic Queensland Rugby League administrator, Ron McAuliffe came to the conclusion that State of Origin was the only hope for the future of interstate football, after two decades of dominance by New South Wales.

McAuliffe vigorously pushed to NSW bosses for an Origin match, and while there was less enthusiasm for the idea south of the border, the minds of the NSW administrators were not closed, and it was decided to 'give it a go', in 1980.

And so, Origin football began, and one small step became a giant leap. When the teams ran out for the inaugural Origin match on July 8, 1980, no-one could have imagined what was to come, with Origin becoming more spectacular with the passing of the years, morphing into what is now a national sporting phenomenon.

The success of the Queensland Maroons in the 1980s laid the platform for the future. If New South Wales had dominated, Origin would have been regarded as an extension of the 1960s and 1970s, and may have withered on the vine. But Queensland won the stand-alone matches in 1980 and 1981, and followed that up by winning six of the eight series played in the eighties, with the only successes for the Blues coming in 1985 and 1986.

Future 'Immortal', Arthur Beetson captained Queensland in the first match in 1980, and was coach in four successful series, with Wayne Bennett the man in charge for the other two series wins.

The one constant was Wally Lewis, lock in the inaugural match; five-eighth and skipper from 1981 to 1989, and the winner of seven Man of the Match awards during that period. 'The King', 'The Emperor of Lang Park' - the legend of Wally Lewis lives on, and the stories surrounding Queensland's resurgence as a rugby league power in the 1980s, have continued to motivate those wearing the Maroon of their State, with new Queensland coach, Billy Slater introducing his players to Lewis before the start of the 2022 campaign.

The rocky years: The 1990s

Queensland faced enormous challenges in the 1990s, with the retirement of skipper, Wally Lewis, and then the ruinous 'Super League War', which divided the available talent.

In the midst of these turbulent times, Queensland delivered what was arguably its finest hour, with a vastly outgunned Maroons' outfit achieving a 3-0 whitewash of the Blues in 1995, under previously untested coach, Paul 'Fatty' Vautin.

Unlike previous years, Queensland could not draw on the vast talents of the Brisbane Broncos, whose Super League aligned players were deemed unavailable. Queensland could barely put together a squad of 17 from the limited pool of ARL loyal Maroons, to take-on what was essentially an all-international New South Wales side.

Queensland forward, Billy Moore made the 'Queenslander' call to arms famous across the land during this campaign, with skipper, Trevor Gillmeister entering sporting folklore by getting out his hospital bed to lead the Maroons in Game III at Suncorp Stadium.

When Super League and the ARL re-united in 1998, a full-strength Queensland side won back the Origin title, held by the Blues for the previous two years, with Wayne Bennet making a triumphant return as Maroons coach.

But there was no denying the fact that New South Wales had taken the honours in the 1990s, winning series in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997, while the 1999 series was drawn. It was always going to be a period of rebuilding and soul searching, following the inevitable retirement of Lewis, after he led Queensland to a 14-12 win in the deciding match in 1991.

Lewis's departure had critics declaring it was the death knell of Origin, but something always happened to revitalise the concept, whether it was Allan Langer's match-winning field goal in 1992; Mark Coyne's miracle try in Sydney in 1994, or the 87,161 crowd at the MCG a fortnight later, for the return clash.

Still, Origin's success relies largely on a successful Queensland side, and 'Fatty's men' did the impossible in 1995, after Queensland lost three straight series following Lewis's retirement. And then Bennett's 1998 outfit sent a warning that Queensland could never be written off.

Decade of dominance: The 2000s

The 2000s began in humiliating fashion for Queensland, but the decade finished with the Maroons dominating New South Wales like never before.

The 2000 Origin campaign was a debacle, with the Blues winning all three games, culminating in a record 56-16 result in Game III, with Queensland players left shattered and embarrassed on the turf of Sydney's ANZ Stadium, as their rivals celebrated with supporters.

Wayne Bennett returned to coach Queensland in 2001, and produced a master-stroke, by bringing back maestro halfback, Allan 'Alfie' Langer from England for the decider, which the Maroons won 40-14. Langer had quit the game in tears in 1999, out of form, and struggling with the unlimited interchange rules of the day, which saw fresh, big men, targeting him.

Langer had made his Origin debut in 1987, and was Man of the Match in the decider. He played 30 Origin matches before his premature retirement, and subsequent decision to re-ignite his career in England. When he returned to Australia to live in 2002, he didn't need much persuading to don the Queensland jumper again, and played all three games in a drawn series.

The following year signalled the start of a lean trot for Queensland, but a losing series in 2003 also saw the emergence of Queensland's greatest servant, Cameron Smith, who was plucked from relative obscurity to play hooker, after only 18 NRL matches.

Smith played 42 Origin matches, and was part of the amazing run of eight series wins in row from 2006, captaining the side in 2008 and 2013, with Darren Lockyer the skipper for the other six series.

The one constant was coach, Mal Meninga, who took the reins in 2006, and remained in charge for 10 series, winning nine. It was fitting that he should be Origin's most successful coach, given he played in the inaugural game in 1980, and, like Beetson and Lewis, went on to become one of the game's Immortals. 

Rivalry without rival: 2010-now

There is no bigger rivalry in Australian Sport than New South Wales versus Queensland in State of Origin rugby league, with games taken to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, as well as traditional rugby league strongholds, Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville and the Gold Coast.

Across 42 campaigns, Queensland has won 65 games with New South Wales winning 56 and two matches drawn. Queensland have won 22 series to 16 by the Blues, while two series have been drawn. Queensland also won the two stand-alone Origin matches in 1980 and 1981.

Not even a global pandemic could stop Origin, with the 2020 series held at the end of the NRL season. The 2020 Queensland team was rated one of the worst ever, before a ball was kicked, yet the Wayne Bennett coached outfit, with 13 debutants across the three games, won the series 2-1.

Now in 2022, it is Billy Slater's turn in the coaching hot seat. Regarded as the greatest fullback of all time, Slater played 31 Origin games, with eight series wins to his credit. He played alongside some of the greats of Origin, including long serving skipper, Cameron Smith; Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis and Petero Civoniceva.

Slater, who captained Queensland to a win in his farewell match in 2018, is a man who acknowledges the history of Origin football, hence his decision to have his newly assembled squad walk down Caxton Street to the northern precinct of Suncorp Stadium, where they met 'The King', Wally Lewis, beside the statue carved in his honour.

In an inspirational speech, Lewis took the team back to the 1980s, and what it meant to win, after the struggles of the 1970s, when the likes of Sydney-based Queenslanders, Arthur Beetson, Rod Reddy, Kerry Boustead and Rod Morris wore the Sky Blue of New South Wales, under the old residential rules.

Barnstorming centre, Chris 'Choppy' Close was Man of The Match in the stand-alone Origin matches in 1980 and 1981, and went on to become an iconic team manager. To this day, Close believes 35-year-old Arthur Beetson should have been Man of the Match in the inaugural game, especially if the decision was based on courage and determination, the two qualities that have been the hallmark of Queensland sides, across the decades.


Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.