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First call up for Origin – ‘We were due to have a baby’

Dear Queenslanders,

As a Queenslander, you earn everything. Nothing is given to you easily.

Queenslanders - always the battlers. Always a battler. But we’re always hard workers. Kind of the underdog, even when we shouldn’t be the underdog.

Queensland is built on hard work.

I grew up in a small country town called Murgon. A town which was full of hard workers – and still is. Everyone working pay cheque to pay cheque.

Murgon is off the beaten track, northwest of Brissie. Pretty well west of Gympie with only 1500 to 2000 residents.

The heart of the town when I was a kid, and long before that, was the abattoir and when that closed down, the town slowly dwindled.

But Murgon is still there now, battling away. It’s still doing ok, I think. But it definitely did a lot better when the abattoir was open.

I started playing rugby league on my fourth birthday.

My brother’s team, he was playing under 8s, didn’t have enough players, so I had a game – my first of what has turned out to be hundreds.

I was born in ’85 and I’ve got a trophy from ’89, and I’ve played ever since.

I just made up the numbers for that first year and again the next year. But it was so much fun.

I ended up playing 14 years of junior rugby league, which is a lot of years, all with the mighty Murgon Mustangs.

Some years, there were not enough players to have teams in each group, so we made do by having age groups every second year. You might be in the under 10s and the next year it was up with the under 12s.

Some years it was the evens, then it changed to odds. But it didn’t matter to us. You played footy, went to school and played footy in the afternoons and that’s what happened.

I grew up best friends with Donald Malone, who, like me, loved his footy.

Donald was part of the Renouf family, who were just like my second family and Donald’s Nan, who was also Steve Renouf’s (Uncle Bucko) mum, was Nan to me from a young age.

So I followed footy closely, especially Steve’s career which took him from Murgon to the Brisbane Broncos, the Queensland Origin team and eventually the Australian Kangaroos.

We always loved when Steve came back to town.

He wasn’t able to come back too often due to his training and playing commitments, but he always sent some of his Broncos playing and training gear back, which was very warmly welcomed.

When it came to State of Origin time, you always knew it was on – our Maroons against the Blues, who were always the enemy.

I wasn’t allowed to stay up late many nights of the week, but when Origin was on it was always OK.

From the Queensland side, I always looked up to Steve the most.

My dad was actually a Manly supporter at the time so you could softly say I supported Manly… or some of the players at least. That nearly hurts to say now, but when you’re a young kid, your dad is king so the Sea Eagles it was.

Steve Menzies was the Manly player I loved to watch. That big lanky thing… and ironically that’s how I ended up – a tall, skinny bloke playing back-row, minus the head gear, eventually finding my way to Redcliffe, the North Queensland Cowboys, the Gold Coast Titans and Penrith Panthers before returning to Townsville in 2011.

There’s been dozens of highlights along the way, including that Cowboys premiership in 2015, but big-time representative football always eluded me.

Queensland was always a tough team to crack. They had so much success and some quality back-rowers, like Sam Thaiday, Aiden Guerra and Matt Gillett, had done the job through so many years.

When the call up to the Maroons came, I was definitely not new to rugby league with more than 200 NRL games on my record.

The coach, Kevie Walters, called me on a Monday, but there was one very significant issue in our lives - my wife Tenille and I were due to have a baby on that Thursday. It was baby number two to follow Archie, who was born two years earlier in 2014. We were actually celebrating Archie’s birthday when Kevie’s call came through.

So we ended up ringing our obstetrician and decided to fast forward Reggie’s birth by a couple of days. I was able to stay home in Townsville for two days, and Kevie kindly offered up this option: ‘If you have to, just come down for the captain’s run’.

To which I said, ‘mate, it’s my first Origin, not my tenth’. So I got into camp a couple of days after and then flew back home on the day off. There was quick check in on the family, and then back to Origin camp to finalise preparations for my Queensland debut.

During camp. Photo: NRL Images
During camp. Photo: NRL Images

It was a very memorable week for lots of reasons.

Tenille was stressed, very stressed. But to her credit, she handled a unique and challenging situation really well.

Looking back now, it was a pretty cool time in our lives.

My first camp and running out for the first time in that famous Maroons jersey was pretty cool as well.

I already knew many of the Queensland boys after playing against them for a very long time, 10 years or so for most of them.

So, I suppose, there was already that mutual respect there from what we’d done week in, week out for a long time.

But getting the chance to pull on the Maroons jersey… you’d always dreamt about that, running around the backyard pretending you’re playing for Queensland or Australia, but to actually do it was amazing.

We were going for a clean sweep. That didn’t quite happen, but I scored a try, so it was a very memorable night. I got to tick that one off.

I remember Suncorp the most. When I think of Origin, I think of running out at Suncorp. It’s just what’s in my head. Running out for a grand final in Sydney was cool, but the noise and the atmosphere in Queensland, the support in Queensland… I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it.

Every time we’re at Suncorp now when we play, that’s what I remember. I get that feeling.

And around Origin time, I still get butterflies.

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

Obviously last year I didn’t get the chance play, but don’t worry, I’ve got a jersey or two that I throw on around Origin time. Whether I’m playing or not, I’m always supporting the Maroons like I’ve done since those Murgon days.

One of the other big highlights of my debut was getting the chance to run out with someone who had become a great mate, Johnathan Thurston, the all-time record holder for the most consecutive Origin matches.

I played a lot of my footy with Jonno when he was here at the Cowboys, lining up alongside him on our left edge.

We had built a great combination so playing with him, even though this time it was for Queensland, was not unfamiliar to me.

The other major highlight for me was playing and training with Cameron Smith, our skipper and the man who has played more Origins than anyone.

The way he went about his business was eye-opening, even for a senior player like me.

I had always admired how he played for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia and how he saw things unfold in a game earlier than anyone else, but to see him do it close up, as a member of the side I was playing in, was another level.

His speeches before we went on and after half time.

The way he could switch from cool, calm and collected to very intense very quickly. Then he would flick that right off and be a bit of a kid.

But when it was time to switch on, he knew how to get the focus of the group very quickly.

And then there’s you, the Queensland fans. What a passionate bunch.

You see Queensland the way I do.

No one outside our state gives us much of a chance, even when Queensland had won eight series in a row.

Every year the Maroons would be the underdogs. That’s what they loved and when they went the best.

Playing. Photo: NRL Images
Playing. Photo: NRL Images

I have some very fond memories of the Queensland fans from the camps I attended.

Just being in Brisbane around Origin time, doing the regional tours, seeing that line up in Queen St that ran for kilometres just to get a photo or an autograph.

I’d heard all the stories, but until I actually got to see it, that was when I was like ‘holy shit, they really love their footy’. You really love your footy.

I’d played professionally for 10 years and I’d experienced the fantastic support my clubs had received from our members and fans, but as soon as you put on the Maroons shirt, it’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Please, just keep doing what you’re doing.

Every league fan loves the game, but Origin, through that period of the year, creates a big divide over the border and I love it. I love it.

Of course I would have loved to play Origin earlier in my career but I think I enjoyed it more, and embraced it more, because it took so long to get there.

And I would’ve been happy if it was just the one game. But I’ve been able to play six. And that was more than I thought I ever would.

There are plaques around Suncorp with the name of each Origin player and they’re doing similar things at the stadium up here in Townsville now for the Cowboys representatives.

One day I’ll get to enjoy all of that sort of stuff and the kids will get to know what it’s all about.

It’s not just me going away for an extended period of time, then catching up with them, and playing another game of footy and then trying to return to ‘normal’ again.

When Archie and Reggie are old enough to realise what Origin is, I think that’ll be very special.

The future of Queensland is pretty bright. I hope we can turn around these last couple of series defeats quickly. Fingers crossed.

New South Wales have done a great job of coming together the last couple of years, building their campaign on the Maroons’ Origin blueprint from 10 years ago.

Queensland were always going to find it tough when we lost our core group of players – Cameron, JT, Cooper Cronk, Matt Scott and Greg Inglis among them. But if we can keep everyone in this new group fit and on the field, there’s no reason why we can’t get the shield back.

With this group of players now, you have to be playing well to make the final 17.

One of the big differences to a few years ago is that the Maroons of 2020 haven’t played all that much footy together, like the old crop did, and that has to be overcome.

Of the current group, I love watching Cameron Munster play.

He lives in the ‘right now’. Not a second before and not a second after. He doesn’t dwell on the past or look too far into the future. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way he is in life in general. That’s what makes him the player that he is, the competitor that he is.

He’s already had a bright career for the Maroons and hopefully he’s a mainstay for many years to come.

In 2020, we’re not sure what lies ahead for Origin and our Maroons, but I know when you next see that Queensland jersey you’ll cheer loudly and proudly – just like that young boy from the Cooper family did in Murgon many years ago.

Thank you Queenslanders,

Gavin Cooper

FOG #185