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‘There was two guys that debuted that night… me and Cam Smith’

Dear Queenslanders,

Obviously I’m proud to be a Queenslander. If you’re born in Queensland and fortunate enough to grow up in Queensland, I think we all feel a little bit privileged.

There’s something about being a Queenslander, you know. It’s never more evident than during State of Origin time, just how fortunate we are to be Queenslanders and how proud people are of where they come from.

I know the players always are and certainly the response you get from people - it’s a special privilege to come from Queensland and be able to represent our state.

For us, that’s in rugby league. That’s a huge privilege.

In action for the North Queensland Cowboys. Photo: NRL Images
In action for the North Queensland Cowboys. Photo: NRL Images

I was born in Moranbah in central Queensland. Started playing rugby league when I was six.

My dad, who is from Barcaldine, taught me everything. He’s quite a bushy and kept it pretty simple.

‘Any footballer worth his salt needs to be able to tackle and needs to be able to draw and pass’ were his words. I remember those words like they were said to me yesterday.

He taught me the fundamentals of rugby league from the age of six – how to tackle and how to pass the football.

I played all my juniors at Moranbah and then I left Moranbah when I was 15 to come up here to Townsville on scholarship with the Cowboys.

I remember watching Origin, at home, as a kid.

I remember the late ‘80s, particularly ’89, we had a great side and probably, as a young kid, it was my most memorable series.

Game I of the ’89 series, we won 36-6. We blew the Blues off the park. I remember, it was just awesome.

So that series, that first game was all about skill and ability, and just how talented the Queensland team was. Then Game II was the famous one where we got all the injuries and we ended up with I think finishing with 12 guys on the field and still winning the game.

So within those two games, I was nine years old at the time, you saw the gifts and the talent and the ability in one instance, and then the toughness and the courage in the other game.

It just encapsulated, you know, what it is to be a Queenslander. Particularly that second game.

Origin was always a big occasion at home around the television. And Moranbah is a rugby league heartland in itself, so Origin time, to this day, around Moranbah is a huge thing.

For me, back then, it was all about the King. It was all about the King in that era.

My first memories of Origin are mid ‘80s, so when he was really starting to make Origin his own.

I feel really fortunate that I was able to see Wally at the peak of his powers. Because that was a privilege.

Josh Hannay FOG #139

There’s never been another Wally.

We’ve had some champions obviously come along, and champions in their own right, but Wally, what he brought to that arena, I don’t need to talk about the stories, everyone knows the legend of Wally.

But I feel privileged to have seen him and what that looked like. It was just epic. I’ve never seen anything like it since. What he meant to the State of Origin arena.

I remember I got my first call up at 23. I was at home. It was Game III of the 2003 series and we’d lost the series.

You start to get a feel through the media when you might be a chance of being selected. Your name starts to pop up more.

So leading into that third game, my name was being spoken about as being a real possibility of being selected. I got the call, I was at home, from Wayne Bennett.

Even though I had an inkling that it might’ve been my time, to actually get that call was an amazing feeling.

You know, you never know what you’re going to do or how you’re going to act if that call ever comes, but I remember hanging up the phone and sort of having a moment where I was on my own, so I was able to just collect my thoughts and I was just filled with immense pride.

I didn’t do a happy dance but I know for sure you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

And then you start the phone calls. You ring your mum, dad and family, and you just want everyone in your circle to know.

That’s how it all unfolded, then a couple of days later you’re in camp and getting ready for the biggest game of your life.

Obviously camps have changed over the years.

I was fortunate enough, it was a period where we were still able to have a bonding session and spend the first part of the camp, almost relaxing.

Footy seemed a million miles away those first few days of camp. It really was about getting together.

You get all your kit, you have that moment where you look at your kit and you’re just, again, filled with immense pride.

Then it’s all about the bonds and trying to form those bonds. Guys like Choppy Close as the manager at the time, and there’s no prouder Queenslander than Choppy, hearing him talk about Queensland and what the jersey meant, it just, filled you with immense pride.

Getting to rub shoulders with Gordy Tallis, and all these guys, there was a little bit of a fandom moment where I was like ‘shit, I’m surrounded by Locky and all these guys’. It was pretty awesome.

We got to have a good bonding session. And then preparations for the game started around the weekend.

So we got into camp maybe Tuesday and it wasn’t until late in the week or into the weekend were we actually started to get serious about our preparations.

Certainly, in those first few days, it mightn’t have been about practising on the field, but you try and forge some relationships and bonds that you know are going to be important come the Wednesday night.

So there was certainly a method to how it was run.

It wasn’t just ‘let’s get in and waste these first few days by relaxing’. There was definitely method to that. And a meaning to that.

It’s a torrid 80 minutes of footy and you definitely need to rely on the guy next to you and trust the guy next to you.

For my debut, there was two guys that debuted that night. There was me and Cam Smith. You know, years from now, I’ll finally be able to look back and go ‘Cam Smith, I got to debut with that guy’.

And it was Gorden Tallis’ last game as well, so there were meaningful things going on within the game itself.

There were plenty of personalities at that time.

Shaun Berrigan was a huge ratbag. He’s legendary for that, being an enormous ratbag.

I roomed with Benny Ikin and Benny was pretty straight up and down. The other way. ‘Straighty 180’ is a good way to put it. Funny. A really funny guy, Benny.

But yeah, there were plenty of different personalities.

You had the younger ratbag brigade and you had some of the older guys that were less so. It was a really good mix.

Like I said, I was part of Smithy’s first game in the Queensland jersey. And yeah, it was pretty cool.

In action for the Maroons. Photo: NRL Images
In action for the Maroons. Photo: NRL Images

In my second game, and I only got to play the two, my second game was Game III of the 2006 series. Which was the first in the run of eight.

I feel almost embarrassed to have been part of that. Because, you know, it was essentially a group of guys that that’s their legacy.

It was a privilege, and it really was an honour, to have played in that era. But again, for me personally, there’s a level of embarrassment that my name is part of that.

My contribution wasn’t necessarily too significant. But I’ll take it.

The game of rugby league, there’s plenty of things that happen along the way that are tough and don’t go your way, so I’m certainly not going to begrudge myself of that going my way.

I was playing mainly reserve grade here at the Cowboys... I couldn’t even make the first grade team.

I was having a bludger of a year and literally came back for one game of NRL, played well and that was enough.

Queensland were beset by injuries to their outside backs, and that’s sort of been the Queensland way for a lot of years.

Just giving a guy an opportunity that might not be in the greatest of form, but that trust they put in you, the Queensland selectors and other players, and the expectation that ‘once you’re here, we know you can do a job for us’.

It sort of come from nowhere, that second selection. And it’s something that I am grateful for.

I’m honestly lucky because that was the start, as we now know, of such a historical time in Queensland’s history.

Fortunately, I will forever have my name etched in that era.

That 2006 series, it was beginning of greatness. It really was. It was the beginning of Mal Meninga’s greatness as a coach in that arena, it was the beginning of Cam Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis.

These guys, who are almost bigger than the game, this was the beginning of their greatness.

It was also a defining moment in Locky’s career, picking up that footy and scoring the try that put us in front.

You know, to be part of that, as a pretty modest type player myself, never flashy of fancy, to in some small way be associated with those guys, is pretty awesome.

I then moved on and retired.

I sit on the couch and watch those guys, just going ‘these are the best at what they do and I once walked on the same field as those guys’.

So I’m really lucky and that moment in our history as a Queensland team might not ever be repeated again.

The other thing for me, with my second game, was about two days out from the game I came down with pretty severe flu.

So I actually got quarantined and I couldn’t do the final captain’s run and all of that. It was touch and go as to whether I could play.

On the day of the game, I had to do a fitness test.

They flew Willie Tonga down from Sydney because it was probably an expectation that I wouldn’t play.

But again, going back to the point that I’d been playing like a bludger at club level and I’d been given this opportunity, I thought ‘this might be it. I’m not going let a flu keep me from taking the field’.

Donning maroon. Photo: NRL Images
Donning maroon. Photo: NRL Images

I think in my head, I’d started to lose the passion and zest for the game, and I think I knew that this was probably it in the Maroons jersey.

Imagine not playing that game and spending the rest of my life going ‘what if’. And again, not knowing what that series was leading into. It’s a bit of a sliding doors moment.

The last couple of days of that camp were really torturous. I was quarantined. Separated from the group. I couldn’t be part of the team discussions.

It was literally game day, I hopped on a treadmill and had to run at a certain level on the treadmill to see if I could get through it. I got through that and the decision was made that I could play.

I was feeling like crap, but again, had I felt like I had another 20 games in front of me, who knows, but I knew within myself I was lucky to be there in the first place. I needed to take that opportunity.

Queensland fans, I must say, you are amazing.

I remember the year the floods hit Brisbane and Suncorp got flooded out and the players had to run on from a different part of the ground.

I went to the game, the first Origin game I was able to go and watch.

I went along and watched the game with a mate and emotions were probably higher than normal that night. Just because of what southeast Queensland had to suffer through that year.

As if Queenslanders need more motivation to play well, there was an added motivation.

I remember the guys ran out and I was just overcome with emotion.

I was now on the other side of the fence as a fan and I was like ‘everyone here has come to watch these guys to have their spirits lifted’ and in typical Queensland fashion, the boys didn’t let down their state.

I get emotional thinking about it now.

But the hair on the back of my neck was standing up and I was just like ‘this is the coolest thing’.

These people of southeast Queensland need this and our boys ran out and produced, and that was pretty awesome.

We talk a lot about the Queensland spirit and what it means to wear the jersey.

It’s a new era for Queensland. There’s fresh faces for Queensland and that’s going to probably go on for a number of years.

There’s probably going to be more and more new faces come into that system and they all need to know that there is such a thing as the Queensland spirit.

It’s not just hype. And talk. We’re not trying to build up anything.

When those guys get into camp, and you have meetings and discussions about what it means to wear the jersey, and to respect those who have worn the jersey before you, it’s not just talk. It’s real.

They will know when they run onto the field wearing the jersey. It will hit home then.

They will have all the talks leading up to it, but it won’t really hit home until they put the jersey on and run out. Then they’ll know about what was spoken about. They will feel it. It’s not paper talk. It’s not hype. It’s legitimate.

It’s a privilege to get to experience it. To experience it as a player and to experience the passion from fans.

All I have is fond memories of the support.

I remember my debut was at Suncorp and I remember Shaun Berrigan was inside me in the defensive line. I was yelling out to Berro about something and he couldn’t hear me. It was useless.

I’ve never played in a game where you can’t talk to the person next to you because of the noise from the crowd. It was a real eye opener. The sheer sound.

Keep it up Queenslanders. It makes the whole Origin experience legendary.

Kind regards,

Josh Hannay

FOG #139