If anyone appreciates the dangers of underestimating the underdog, it’s former Queensland back-rower Gary Larson.
One of the Maroons’ greatest ever players, gravel-voiced Larson was a key member of Paul Vautin’s 1995 squad that, having been written off after losing the bulk of their talent to the Super League war, defied all the odds to sweep the series 3-0.
And although he remains a passionate Queenslander, he senses something special about this latest New South Wales side.
“That’s right – never underestimate a team with their backs against the wall,” he told NRL.com on the eve of the tonight’s State of Origin opener at Suncorp Stadium.
“NSW look as though they might have got it right this year and I think it will be a very close game.
“Last year’s third game was a close one so they’ll take confidence from there. And I think Queensland will miss Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges.
“NSW have picked a formidable outfit. They’re hungry, they’re all tough competitors and Ricky Stuart brings that real Origin spirit to the squad.”
Although Larson won’t be at the game tonight – the 44-year-old is required in the central Queensland coal mines early tomorrow morning – he says that the State of Origin build-up hasn’t escaped him.
That 1995 series is famous for any number of memorable moments but none more so than teammate Billy Moore’s passionate cries of ‘Queenslander’ as he walked down the Melbourne Cricket Ground tunnel in Game Two – and even now Larson laughs: “I’ve been hearing it all week on the radio!
“That’s how fanatical they are around here,” he said.
“The people here in Central Queensland just love rugby league. They’re working class rugby league followers. It’s a lot different to what it’s like in the city and the last three days we’ve just been pounded with Origin!
“But it brings back some great memories and I can still hear Billy in that tunnel
“It really lifted us that night – that sort of stuff is motivational. Anything that can pump you up and get you across the line so to speak – it definitely worked.”
Now a D11 Bulldozer driver around Gladstone, around 40 minutes’ drive from where he grew up, Larson’s career has brought him full circle after he originally left for Sydney some 25 years ago.
Having spent the past three years learning his trade, he spends his days loading and unloading coal from trains but admits it is a far cry from where he originally envisioned settling down.
“At the end of the day I thought North Sydney would live forever and that I would be involved with the club when I retired,” said Larson, who played 233 games for the Bears between 1989-99 before the club was forced to fold when the Super League war ended.
“I think that nearly every player that ever played for North Sydney thought that too. That didn’t happen so I suppose to get away from all of that we moved away from Sydney – to get away from those memories.
“Obviously I’ve got great memories of playing for the club but bad memories of when the club folded.
“The day I was told that the Bears were no more, I was on holidays on Hamilton Island with the wife and kids and it wasn’t a real good way to find out. We knew that something was on the cards towards the end of the season so we were prepared for it, but we weren’t prepared for the loss of income.
“We had contracts and nothing could be done about that. That hurt too because we had mortgages to pay so you had to scramble to find a new employer – another club or whatever. That was one of the downsides – along with, for the supporters and the fans, not having a club to support anymore.”
Larson played 17 games with Parramatta in 2000 before announcing his retirement and although he remains to this day a Bear at heart, he insists he has fond memories of his farewell stint with the Eels.
“Yeah, I actually enjoyed playing under Brian Smith,” he laughed. “He was a breath of fresh air for me and I got on with Brian like a house on fire.
“I could cop his criticism, whereas a lot of players can’t cop criticism. I suppose you’d call it ‘Gen Y’. I was always taught to listen to your coach and do what you’re told. So I enjoyed it and found it a new challenge.
“But of course, I always missed Norths. Every player to come through that club is part of your family. You became great mates. It’s hard to swallow when you give the game away and you leave that camaraderie – especially when you move away from Sydney and you don’t see them every day. I think that’s what a lot of players today and in years gone by have struggled with, unless they’ve got something ready to go to outside of football.”
Not surprisingly Larson has remained in close contact with his former North Sydney teammates (Greg Florimo is his brother-in-law, after all) and keeps a close eye on movements to resurrect the club in the coming seasons.
“It’s been Flo’s honeypot from day one,” Larson said. “He has been the rock holding it all together. He has been the water boy for the NSW Cup side, he has been the coach, he’s been the promotions officer, the secretary, marketing – he deserves everything he gets and I hope it does work out.
“Whether I go back and help him? I don’t know. I’m settled here at the moment and the kids – one is about to leave Year 12 and go to uni and the other fella is still in high school… so maybe when they move on. At this stage I don’t have any inclination to go back. ‘Flo’ has plenty of good people down there helping him – guys like David Fairleigh and Michael Buettner all have their hand on the pulse.”
In the meantime, Larson will be one of the millions of Australians tuning in to watch Queensland and NSW do battle tonight, safe in the knowledge that, for the time being at least, he still holds one remarkable State of Origin record. Between 1991 when he made his Maroons debut and 1998 when he farewelled the representative arena, Larson played 24 consecutive Origin games and will forever be remembered among Queensland’s greatest servants.
“They were great times and I’m glad I still hold the record!” he said. “Cameron Smith had the opportunity last year to break that record (before missing Game One with injury at 19 in a row) and I thought ‘What better player for it to go to’. He is an absolute Trojan, Cameron – a great Origin player – so if it had of gone it would have gone to a worthy person.
“But I’ve still got it and at least it’s something for people to remember me by.”