The State of Origin shield is safely in the keeping of the Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons following an outstanding game on the Sunshine Coast last week, marking the first time Queensland have claimed the honours in the Origin era.
However, in a year where the prospect of contesting the State of Origin – let alone playing another game of rugby league – was thrown into doubt at the start of the season, it seemed fitting to reflect on the first Women’s Interstate Challenge match and a win which helped establish the modern-day rivalry and launch a steady period of dominance for Queensland.
One of arguably the most impressive undefeated runs in sports almost never happened, with the Queensland Women’s team having to overcome a 16-6 deficit mid-way through the second half to claim victory in their inaugural representative match against New South Wales.
Highlights: Women's Interstate Challenge - 1999
That win, staged at ANZ Stadium (now Queensland Sport and Athletics Centre) in Brisbane on July 4, 1999, launched an amazing period of success for the Queensland side, who went 17 years without being defeated by their southern opponents.
Queensland’s leading female players claimed Interstate Challenge wins from 1999 through to 2014; and while a draw followed in 2015, the result allowed Queensland to retain the Nellie Doherty Cup.
New South Wales then found success in 2016 and 2017 and into the State of Origin era in 2018 and 2019.
Back in 1999, the first “officially” recognised representative match between the two states was as thrilling as they come.
Queensland scored three tries in the closing 10 minutes, with a double to young Indigenous winger Tracey ‘Tracker’ Thompson – including the match winner – laying the platform for success for many years to come.
Led by an outstanding performance by a young Karyn Murphy as five-eighth who laid on the match-winning tries, and featuring some fearsome hard running from prop Debbie Merritt and lock Jodie Billing, whose carries would earn them cult status today; the team showed what’s been celebrated as true Queensland spirit to fight back to claim the win.
Played as a curtain raiser to the Brisbane Broncos v Balmain Tigers NRL match, the game was one of the many building blocks towards establishing a thriving game that women’s rugby league players enjoy today.
At the time, there was no infrastructure around the game to officially make it a 'State of Origin', so for many years the teams were essentially selected on a residency basis.
Two of the best players to pull on a maroon jersey not only began their Interstate Challenge careers in sky blue, but they were also helping to lead the team.
New South Wales were captained by Tarsha Gale in that first game while Nat Dwyer and Tahnee Norris were key figures in the side and also made history as try scorers in the inaugural game.
Veronica White (QRP #12) featured in the second row for Queensland in the 1999 game, and while she played well; much of her hard work was done before the game.
As an administrator and secretary for both the then Australian Women’s Rugby League and Queensland Women’s Rugby League, White was instrumental in getting the game organised and staged before the NRL match.
The clash was able to take place after White was approached to help find a game for the Brisbane Broncos to play as their curtain raiser.
“We jumped at the opportunity to expose the women’s game,” White said.
As for the game itself, it was a promising start for the Queensland team who claimed an early lead, thanks to a penalty goal to Karen Shaw; before New South Wales hit back with a try to Dwyer - who alongside Murphy - is a current Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons assistant coach.
With scores locked 6-6 at the halftime break, it was anyone’s game.
In the second half, the building crowd who were arriving at their seats for the match which was to follow, were right behind the home team and cheered on as Queensland mounted their stirring comeback.
Queensland had fallen behind 16-6, with tries to Nicky Richards and a tough-as-nails Norris putting the Blues in front.
However, with their backs to the wall, Queensland was able to rally and thanks to some great vision from Murphy and strong running from Thompson; the home side were able to clinch the win.
The celebrations were captured by The Courier Mail, with the publication showcasing the key moment in women’s rugby history in their front page the next day.
Women's Interstate Challenge 1999
Queensland 18 (Tracey Thompson 2, Teresa Anderson, Sharon Mitchell-Cowan tries; Karen Shaw goal) defeated New South Wales 16 (Nicky Richards, Tahnee Norris, Natalie Dwyer tries; Natalie Dwyer 2 goals)
Queensland Women's squad - 1999
1. Erica Ross 2. Teresa Anderson 3. Karen Shaw 4. Tammy Pohatu 5. Tracey Thompson 6. Karyn Murphy (c) 7. Annie Banks 8. Debbie Merritt 9. Karen Stewart 10. Kellie Bachelor 11. Kirsty Taylor 12. Veronica White 13. Jodie Billing 14. Kerri Shiplock 15. Megan Stiller 16. Gina Sterling 17. Debbie Mulhern 18. Sharon Mitchell-Cowan
Coach: Tony Ashton