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Foggy memories: Close encounters of the Artie kind

When Arthur Beetson sat next to Chris Close in the Lang Park dressing sheds four decades ago, it was the master and apprentice moment that would change rugby league forever.

Imagine it. That night, Close was a 21-year-old who just two years earlier in 1978 had scored 52 tries for Cunnamulla in the Wallal Cup.

As State of Origin dawned, he was a disciple following the spiritual leader of the Queensland Maroons into a rugby league paradise, via a holy war against New South Wales.

Close is 61 years old, but when he speaks of Beetson it is almost a mystical experience... as though the great man was standing before him in his mind's eye.

Close had come up through the soil of Queensland rugby league. The grit of it was in his teeth and every fibre of his being. As a youth, he already understood its roots and what this resilient plant, dying on the vine at the time, needed to flourish once again.

A young Chris Close. Photo: supplied
A young Chris Close. Photo: supplied

The Queensland way was one he'd absorbed almost by osmosis. After years of watching NSW beat Queensland in the interstate series with teams stacked with players from north of the border, it was time to right some wrongs. He was a Beetson disciple from head to toe.

"The greatest memory that I have in rugby league was following him," Close said of that July 8, 1980, evening.

“I had the absolute pleasure of sitting beside him as he prepared for the game in that dressing shed.

"We both came back to our position with our bags and sat down.

"Getting ready for the game was almost like I’d joined some incredible army and we were preparing to die.

"I watched Arthur get himself ready for that and the way he pulled his jersey on and covered his face in Vaseline and shoved it up his nose, wiped it off his fingers and wiped it on his cheeks.

"Then he got a big pair of pantihose full of resin, and he put his big chest out and he beat his chest with this resin to get that stickiness onto his jersey. There was resin dust in the air. I looked at him and I thought 'bloody hell, I’d kill for you bro' because I was allowed into the greatest battle that I’ve ever been involved with in my life."

The rest is history of course. Queensland won 20-10. The State of Origin concept never looked back after Beetson brilliantly led his team to a famous victory in his one and only Origin game.

Close has waxed lyrical on many occasions since about the place Origin football has at the centre of the beating heart of the game.

He has humbly very rarely spoken of his own contribution to the Queensland cause that night. It is worth remembering and celebrating.

Choppy Close - True Queenslander

The 1980 try

Close scored a cracker that night. On any measure, it is one of the great rugby league tries.

A team effort, but finished with the individual brilliance of a man possessed. His heart pulsated with maroon blood. He would have spilled it all for this moment

Beetson was heavily involved, making his own charge in to the teeth of the Blues defence before unloading to John Lang. Mal Meninga was the next recipient of the footy. He handed it on to a stationery Close, his centre partner, 35 metres out.

A split-second later and there was a subtle change of direction from Close. Mick Cronin, Alan Thompson and Tom Raudonikis, all class acts, were thus caught chasing air. Close then cut back in-field before straightening to beat Thompson for pace.

He rampaged towards Graham Eadie, and swerved around  him with the determination of a runaway bull from the back of beyond.

Close explained the try as only he can.

"I’ve had the privilege of Arthur describing the try as well, and he said that from the minute he passed the ball he knew something was going to happen, and I’m glad he did because when I got the ball I thought, 'what the hell is going to happen here?'," Close recalled.

"When Mall passed the ball to me, I was momentarily standing still with the ball in my hand. If I had gone left nothing would have eventuated, so I rolled the dice and went back inside and caught them wrong-footed.

"Of all the great assets that anyone could possess in rugby league, I was lucky enough to have one of those and that was speed off the mark.

"I could go from zero to one hundred in a very short distance and I remember I just spotted the inkling of a gap inside Alan Thompson and I hit the afterburners and took off.

"I took the gamble and it opened up like the Sydney heads. I flew through and I looked and Graham Eadie was the only person left."

And the sight of the great Eadie was no comfort to Close, which explains what happened next.

"Graham Eadie was a very influential player for me in the game and how I played and evolved, just because of his size and the speed he had. He was one of the greatest fullbacks to ever play our game," Close said.

"He could use his shoulder to just destroy players. I’d seen it in highlight reels time and time again and I think momentarily that clicked into my brain and I thought my best option was to get around him and use my speed… and I changed direction and caught him flat footed.

"My speed did the deed. He never touched me. I remember as I went around him I thought, 'wow. How did you do that?' I put the ball down and wow, what a moment for me. A young 21-year-old. What a magnificent moment."

Man of the match award

Watch the entire inaugural Origin game of 1980 and it is no wonder Close was adjudged the best player on the field. An uncompromising competitor on any occasion, that night Close absorbed the electric energy crackling from Beetson, the rest of his team mates and the crowd and turned it against the men in blue jumpers.

"I can remember on the field I heard this enormous roar just before the game finished," Close recalled.

" I didn’t hear the announcement. I just heard the crowd roar, and I said to one of the players, 'was that the hooter?', and they said 'no they just announced you as man of the match'. 

"I remember thinking how well we had played as a team and how we’d given everything and how Arthur’s contribution was incredulous.

"It was one of those things you are lucky enough to be involved in. I’d given everything that night that I had in my body. I didn’t leave one thing in the tank.  I thought 'stuff it, you’ve earned it mate. Well done'."

Arthur Beetson and Chris 'Choppy' Close. Photo: supplied by Chris Close
Arthur Beetson and Chris 'Choppy' Close. Photo: supplied by Chris Close

The photo

Close was later presented with a framed image of him sitting next to a smiling Beetson after the game as a thank you by The Courier Mail, to acknowledge the contribution he had made to Queensland and how it encapsulated what Origin was and what it became.

For years, the image has held pride of his place in his home after moving many times throughout NSW and Queensland.

"I didn’t know the photo existed until it was presented to me and that was a massive bonus given the outcome of the game," Close said.

"To set the scenario of how that picture unfolded, it really does tell the story of Queensland v NSW and how Origin changed the concept of what we know now as our great game.

"That photo really did capture how much it meant to us as players, where we finally got the opportunity to show the world that we were worthy of that position.

"The thanks and gratitude that sits within me towards Arthur Beetson for his contribution in making that happen is clearly demonstrated in that photo.

"It sits dearly with me. If you see the full photo, it really does paint the picture of the times and the dressing sheds. The contrast of how it was for us then in contrast to how it is now, the gap is so big that the players today have no concept of where rugby league was at that moment in time.

“If you go through that photo, you can see the differences not only in rugby league but in society. I have a Winnie Red in one hand and a can of beer in the other. We are sitting in the darkest, dankest dressing room under Lang Park, but for me and others who played in that era, that room was the doyen of Queensland rugby league.

"That was where we prepared for our battles and our wars and where we felt our disappointment and enjoyed our jubilation, based on what happened out on that magnificent ground… Lang Park."