When Jason Hetherington was peppered with questions before a whiteboard by Wayne Bennett in his first Queensland Maroons camp, he knew he’d fulfilled a dream 18 years in the making.
That was an arrival of sorts, but one year later when his idol Wally Lewis hung a prestigious medallion around his neck at the end of the 1999 State of Origin series, he knew he truly belonged in the game’s toughest arena.
Hetherington had dreamed of wearing the Maroons jersey ever since he was the Queensland under 12s halfback.
When 1998 rolled around, he was 28 years of age. Steve Walters had retired from the representative scene and Hetherington, who remarkably had not packed into a scrum in his life until the 1994 season, was in the mix for a Maroons debut.
The 1998 season was a good one for Hetherington. He was Dally M hooker of the year at the Bulldogs, played in the inaugural NRL grand final against the Brisbane Broncos and made his Test debut against New Zealand.
Mid-year he received a massive boost when he saw a familiar face racing towards him with some good news about the Maroons team for Origin I.
"My neighbour Ross Lobb in Sydney had become a good mate of mine and still is. He was a fanatical Bulldogs supporter and he heard about my selection on the radio," Hetherington recalled.
"I was in the backyard and he came running over to my house saying 'You’ve made the Origin side'.
"In 1981 the players in the Queensland under 12s team were guests of honour at the Origin game at Lang Park and they sat us down inside the signage on the sideline. From that moment I’d wanted to be a part of it."
Bennett made sure Hetherington was in spotlight from the get-go.
"I was really nervous at my first team meeting in 1998. Wayne was the coach and he had the whiteboard out and was drawing all these different game day scenarios," Hetherington chuckled.
"He looked around the room and said 'what would you do in this situation…Jason?'
"I didn’t want to get it wrong. I had my say and he was happy. Then Wayne draws up the next scenario and said 'what would you do…Jason?'. I thought 'Geez Wayne, leave me alone'.
"Then we had our next team meeting and I hid down the back. Alf cottoned on to it and piped up 'Wayne, he’s down here. He’s down here under the table'. Wayne left me alone that day but he’d really challenged me and I didn’t want to let him down.
"It was so exciting for me to be in the same room with Alf, Kevie and all those legends. It was a dream come true."
What a start in Origin footy for Hetherington it was. The Maroons scored at the death through Tonie Carroll and Darren Lockyer converted to give Queensland a memorable 24-23 win at the SFS.
"I remember the emotion of Choppy Close, our team manager. We went back into the sheds and Wayne was also showing his true excitement and I’d never seen that side of him before,” Hetherington said.
"We celebrated and then we knuckled down and focused on game two."
Hetherington played in the 26-10 loss in Game II and was dropped for Jamie Goddard for the decider, which the Maroons won 19-4.
"It was a tough call but I took it on the chin. It is all about how you bounce back when you get knocked down,” Hetherington said of his axing.
“In hindsight I had a chronic knee problem that I’d taken into the first game. I’d hurt it against Manly days before the team was named. I got through it and got through Game II but looking back my preparation probably wasn’t the best.
"The main thing was that we got the result in the decider and I decided to work harder to get back the next year."
Work hard Hetherington did and in 1999 he was selected by new coach Mark Murray for the Origin opener.
The 1999 series was right up Hetherington’s alley. It was a real scrap where defence and getting down and dirty in the trenches was paramount.
The Maroons won 9-8 in the first game at Lang Park after Mat Rogers scored all the points in his Queensland debut. Hetherington had a blinder and was the official man of the match.
"That 1999 series was a tough, grinding affair and that was what I based my game on,” Hetherington said.
"I thrived in those arm wrestles and that is the way it panned out. Defensively I got a fair bit of recognition in that first game and I took pride in getting that individual accolade.
"After the game I got interviewed by Blocker [Steve Roach] and I was presented with $1000 cheque to spend at Home Hardware. I was asked what I'd do with it and I said ‘I’ll go and get a cordless drill for starters'.
"I copped some flak because a week before that I’d done a promotion for Makita up near Gladstone and they gave me a drill for doing it.
"I got a call after the interview from a guy with the company and he said 'has that drill broken down already?' I said 'no, it's going fine but that's the first thing that popped into my head'.”
The Maroons lost the second game 12-8 but drew the decider 10-10 at Lang Park to retain the Origin shield.
Hetherington then was presented with the Wally Lewis Medal which until 2003 was presented to the Queensland player of the series, until being re-badged as the Ron McAuliffe Medal.
"That was a proud moment to have the King present his medallion to me," Hetherington said.
"Wally was one of my heroes growing up and was my first top grade coach at the Gold Coast.”
Hetherington’s Origin career ended in 2000, as it did for several Maroons after a series to forget. The 56-16 loss in the final game was bad enough, but the synchronised “grenade explosion” celebration by the New South Wales Blues players at the end added salt into a gaping wound.
"It still haunts me to this day. Every year that Origin rolls around that grenade episode gets a start on TV," Hetherington said.
"That was not a proud moment for me or any Queenslander. I think in the end it might have done Queensland a favour because after that our dominance started to show through, but it still hurts."
Hetherington finished with eight Origin games at hooker for the Maroons, in itself a remarkable achievement.
He'd gone to Canterbury in 1994 to be Terry Lamb’s understudy at five-eighth and to be ready to take over when he retired.
"I was a rugby union halfback and had a fair pass from the deck and was a fair tackler so Marty Bella and Billy Johnstone recommended to Chris Anderson that I be given a go at hooker because they’d run out of them through injury," Hetherington chuckled.
"Anderson cut a whole lot of footage of Box [Steve Walters] and told me to mould my game around him because he was the best in the business.
I didn’t know how to play hooker. I’d never packed a scrum in my life. I really was an accidental hooker.Jason Hetherington
The knockabout lad from Central Queensland had pulled a swiftie on league officials throughout his career as well. He was actually born on August 23, 1970 but throughout his professional career told officials he was born in 1973 – a date that is still used in official records.
After going bald early on in his career, the wily hooker already looked older than his years, so lopped three years off his age to go with his lopped hair.
Hetherington is still actively involved in rugby league and is the Queensland Maroons women's coach again in 2020.
Aspiring Maroons battle through intense boot camp
"I coached the Capras [in the Intrust Super Cup] and I had a wonderful affiliation with Mal on staff with the Queensland side, and had a year with Kevie,” Hetherington said.
"Then I got the Queensland women’s role. We are setting up some exciting programs with the QRL and the girls game is going ahead.
"We’ve been close the last two years at North Sydney Oval, but not close enough. I think we are moving in the right direction and we get to play on the Sunshine Coast next. It is going to be great for the girls to run out in front of a sea of maroon."