When Bennett didn't want Langer

When Bennett didn't want Langer

Wayne 'Ticker' Heming is a veteran rugby league correspondent who has attended more than 100 State of Origin matches. Approaching the first game of the 2018 Origin series, held on June 6 in Melbourne, 'Ticker' will delve into the memory banks to recall some of his standout moments and individuals from one of the world's greatest sporting contests.

If Wayne Bennett had had his way, Allan Langer may have missed the Origin boat.

Instead, the player Bennett did not think was up to the physical brutality that was intestate warfare, turned out to be his all-time favourite player from a string of superstars.

Together they won premierships, Origins and Test series, proving to be one of the best coach-player combinations in the game's history.

Who could ever forget Bennett's clandestine plot when he phoned Langer in the United Kingdom when he was playing for the Warrington Wolves, coached by Aussie Darryl Van der Velde,

Langer answered Bennett's SOS to jet home and make a comeback in the Origin series-deciding third game in 2001.

Langer's response to his former coach was typically Alf - "What took you so long coach" - he said as Bennett set in motion the most amazing master plan in Origin history.

But back to Bennett.

He was a young up-and-coming coach when he made his debut with Queensland in 1986.

Langer, who was playing for Ipswich Jets in the State League at the time, had played a Panasonic Cup game for Brisbane and backed back-up for what was an Origin selection trial between the Queensland Residents and Queensland Non-Residents.

In Bennett's eyes, Langer had failed to live up to the hype surrounding him in both the Panasonic Cup game and in the trial, where he was overshadowed by Laurie Spina and Kevin Walters, both auditioning for Mark Murray's No.7 Maroon jumper.

When the young coach strode into the selectors' meeting he was determined that either Spina or Walters would wear the No.7, not Langer.

But in a turn up for the books, the Chairman of the day, Dud Beattie, overruled Bennett in favour of the pint-sized Langer, who came highly recommend by none other than former NSW and Australian half, Tommy Raudonikis.

Had Bennett got his way Langer would have been overlooked and history may have been different.

"I flew up from Canberra for the trial," recalled Bennett.

"Alf played for the Residents and Spina (Sydney Roosters) and Walters (Canberra) played for the non-Residents.

Langer, who had failed to impress Bennett in his Panasonic Cup appearance, again failed to change his mind with his performance in the Origin trial.

All the good judges were tipping Spina, who has claim to the title of the unluckiest person never to play Origin.

"I walked into the selection meeting and made it clear I wanted Kevvie (Walters) or Laurie Spina as my halfback," revealed Bennett.

"Alfie had two opportunities to push his case and came up with nothing."

But Bennett was out-voted when Beattie rolled the dice on Langer, mostly because Raudonikis was adamant the blonde-haired kid was special.

"It's the only time I ever got overruled when I coached Origin," said Bennett, who went on to explain how Langer turned things around on a short tour of New Zealand with Wally Lewis and some other Queensland Origin stars.

Bennett discovered Langer was different; that he was a player who needed to feel wanted by his team-mates.

"Alf wasn't someone who you could just bring in out of the cold and he would play great in a one-off rep game, he needed to have you believe in him," said Bennett.

"He needed to feel wanted (by his teammates).

"What happened on that tour because we were away for 10 or 12 days was Alf was able to get into their environment and the players all realised what a good bloke he was and what a funny character he was.

"Alf had to be himself. All of a sudden, he had the feeling he belonged.

"Once Alf knew the players liked him and trusted him, he did the rest.

Langer played 34 games for the Maroons, and Bennett, who shunned him at that first Origin selection meeting, openly rates him as the best performer for Queensland for his high-quality contributions over a decade at the toughest level.

At the time the jockey-sized Langer emerged on the rugby league scene an American sitcom series called Alf – an acronym for Alien Life Form – featuring a short, friendly, furry animal, was gaining popularity.

The name just stuck to Langer.

Since the days of Beattie, Les Geeves, Des Morris and now Gene Miles. Queensland's selection panel has rarely got it wrong - including Langer's bold gamble more than 30 years ago.

They copped some stick last year when they overlooked champion fullback Billy Slater for the first game of the series, but redeemed themselves to take the final two games to claim their 11th series in the past 12 years.

Next month they will name a Queensland side which already is causing great debate about who should and should not pull on the Maroon jumper.

I am backing them to get it right, again.