Melbourne Cricket Ground. Rugby league's second coming in 1995. And a largely non-descript Queensland team headed south to complete Mission Impossible and pull off what is still the most unlikely State of Origin series win in its 38-year history.
The Maroons, captained by Trevor Gillmeister but mostly comprised of little-celebrated players who were fresh in first grade or had had little chance of playing Origin if not for the game's Super League split that saw a dozen established Queensland players banned from competing in the series.
They had somehow defied the tipsters and bookies, who gave them 19.5 points start in game one in Sydney, winning 2-0 in the match made famous for Billy Moore's "Queenslander" rants as the Maroons appeared from the dressing room at half-time – a moment that has become legendary.
Origin had gone to Melbourne for the first time in 1994 and drew what was then the largest crowd to attend a league match in Australia – 87,161, with NSW winning 14-0 in a game refereed by current Titans CEO Graham Annesley.
What most people remember about the '95 MCG clash is not so much Queensland's 20-12 victory and the healthy crowd of 52,994 but Origin’s most prolonged and ugly brawl.
And the story behind it is one of State of Origin's most mysterious and emotive.
Queensland were coached by Paul Vautin, then in his early days on the Channel 9 commentary team, whose previous coaching was limited to taking the Brisbane Capitals to win the five-game Queensland Cup in 1992. Wayne Bennett had stood down from the role after Super League-aligned players had been rubbed out.
Hours before the match, rumors were rife that the Blues would ignite a brawl in the first scrum in an attempt to unsettle the inexperienced Maroons.
Vautin says he received a call that afternoon from a Channel 9 colleague, whose identity he has never revealed. The source claimed NSW players had been spruiking that the first Maroons player to scream out their 'Queenslander' call to arms "would be smashed".
'Fatty' took the news to his 6pm team meeting before they left their hotel. He declared "by the way, I have been told these blokes are threatening that the first time they hear 'Queenslander' yelled in a scrum, it’s going to be on.
"Who wants to yell it out then." The story goes that 17 hands went up in the air.
Vautin was delighted and said if the instance occurred, it was one-in-all-in, however, he warned that whichever team settled quickest and got back to playing footy would win the match.
NSW coach Phil Gould says the alleged Blues' pact was fantasy but conceded Vautin used the ploy well. "They made that up but it was all good theatre and it's great what Fatty did with it," he told me.
Four minutes into the game, a scrum was ordered. As the players started to link arms, the Queenslanders took it upon themselves to circumvent the formalities.
"We went to the first scrum and I turned to 'Jed' [Gavin] Allen and I said 'what do you reckon' and he said in that drawl of his 'well, we may as well get it on now, eh'," remembers Gillmeister. "And I said 'happy days'.
"Obviously the Blues had the same mentality. All I remember was the scrum packing and Wayne Bartrim said something to their hooker Jim Serdaris and it was on for young and old after that."
Maroons hooker Bartrim taunted his opposing No. 9 Serdaris who responded with the first punch. Mayhem instantly broke loose.
Fighting was spread over a 30-metre area. Wingers Danny Moore and John Hopoate - Manly teammates - were at each other on the sideline with Matt Sing giving Moore a hand. Billy Moore and NSW second-rower David Barnhill were at it the longest, their melee starting at the scrum-line and spilling over the sideline.
Halfbacks Andrew Johns and Adrian Lam ripped into each other as three separate mini-melees continued.
Channel 9 caller Ray Warren uttered: "They have come from everywhere like it was almost a rehearsal … well, the pipeline got it right."
The aspect I remember vividly was that the uneducated Victorian crowd had been silent and almost unconnected to the football played until that time but leapt from the seats when the "stink" broke out. Their noise and involvement lifted from that point.
The Maroons went on to clinch the series when flame-haired winger Brett Dallas hared away late in the game, raising his arm in joy before he reached the line.
The other drama that evolved from that MCG clash involved Gillmeister.
He had a gash on his leg caused by a boot stud to the knee during the match and it became infected, supposedly from fertilizer used on the soil. It swelled so badly in the lead-up to the third clash that he was put in a hospital for five days on an intravenous drip.
Gilly was in his hotel room, still on a drip, three hours before kick-off and Crushers back-rower Brett Horsnell had been put on standby.
Vautin asked Saunders what the worst scenario was is his mate Gilly played. The answer was that septicaemia could set in and he could die (highly unlikely though).
Gillmeister, who thought the delegation had come to rule him out of the match, remained quiet.
Close responded: "Geez, that's no good … but I couldn't think of a better place to die than Lang Park with a Queensland jersey on."
Vautin, who had years earlier been ina hospital for three months with golden staph after snapping his Achilles tendon, looked at Gillmeister – his teammate since Brisbane Norths junior days – and said he had to make a decision whether he thought he could play.
He added: "If it was me and I had a chance to lead Queensland out onto Lang Park to win a series 3-0 as captain and be cheered off that field … and later be picked for Australia, and don't worry you will if you get out there, I would just get out of bed and play."
Gilly looked up, his eyes alight by now, and responded: "I've been waiting for you to say that for five f------ minutes!"
He was cleared to play, on the condition he returned to hospital after the match (he was there for two more nights) and lasted 57 minutes in one of Origin’s greatest displays of determination.
Queensland won 24-16 and the entire squad entered State of Origin folklore with him.
Note: Some detail and quotes sourced from Greats of Origin, by Neil Cadigan, published 2011.
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