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In Touch: The power of the underdog

Leila McKinnon NRL.com Tue, May 17, 2011 - 9:04 PM

NSW have a chance to snatch QLD's most powerful weapon ... the underdog tag. Copyright: Action Photographics

It’s cold, it’s almost dark by 5pm, and just as it happens every year, some uninspiring act has just won the Eurovision song contest sparking a controversy that the judging is fixed. Yes, it’s May, and Origin is so close you can taste the invigorating flavour of hatred.

No, the Blues don’t have superstars such as Billy Slater, Darius Boyd, Darren Lockyer, Petero Civoniceva, or Johnathan Thurston. No, they’re not playing two home games, and no, their most experienced Origin player Mark Gasnier isn’t necessarily going to be there. 

But this year New South Wales has a golden opportunity to snatch Queensland’s most powerful weapon and turn it to their advantage.

Ever since the first Origin game in 1980 the cane toads have reveled in the title of underdogs. It’s that “us against the world” attitude that fires up the big ole’ toads and sends them on to the field defiant, focused, and determined. 

Before 1980 interstate teams were selected not on where you came from but which team you currently played for, and because New South Wales clubs had access to piles of poker machine gold, all the great Queenslanders had been bought and paid for.

Paul Hogan said it all when he joked in 1977 that "every time Queensland produces a good footballer, he finishes up being processed through a New South Wales poker machine".

According to Wikipedia, before gaming machines were legalised in 1956 Queensland had won 25 percent of series played, but afterwards that number fell to only 3.8 percent.

The pain of those 24 years of unfair and repetitive losses soaked deep into the Maroons’ psyche and would go on to fuel their ambition, always.

In 1980 and 1981 just one game of the three matches was played with teams selected on the basis of the player’s origin. Queensland won that single game each year.

But the New South Wales media continued to doubt the Maroons … the Blues had been winning series (using Queensland players!) for too long.

That’s when the king-to-be stepped in. Captain Wally Lewis used that contempt to fire up his northerners and win the first three State of Origin series.

In 1995 Fatty Vautin’s team, bereft of Super League players (the Broncos for a start!) were given no chance at all. Dubbed the “Baby Maroons”, they were expected to get slaughtered by a Blues team coached by Phil Gould, comprised of superstars including Brad Fittler, Andrew Johns, Paul Harragon and Steve Menzies. 

But Queensland kept their rivals scoreless in the first game, and went on to win the series 3-nil, stunning footy fans and presumably Gus and his team of legends.

There is an astonishing power in the motivation to show an army of doubters each and every one of them is wrong. There is no heavy weight of expectation on the underdogs, they’re free to go their hardest, and no one will be shocked and disappointed if they lose. And nothing bonds a team together like people telling them they’re rubbish and are destined to lose.

It’s so motivating that Queensland hangs on to the underdog status no matter what. Even last year, when the Maroons had won four Origin series in a row, they somehow engineered themselves into the underdog position and made it work for them.

After their surprising win in the first match, cane toad halfback Johnathan Thurston put it like this: “It’s the Queensland way – it’s our never-give-up attitude, this team’s got a special bond. They keep writing us off with no (Cameron) Smith, (Steve) Price, (Ben) Hannant, we love it.”

The cockroaches need to know that when you’re the underdog the fans are willing you to win, and even the enemy’s fiercest supporters hate you a little less. 

At the time of writing the bookies had Queensland at $1.40, and New South Wales at $2.95.

It’s a lack of belief Ricky Stuart must embrace, use, and even love, and then he can send his team on to the field with an unmatched willpower found only in the underdog.