How New South Wales would love to have a Ben Kennedy on the field tonight!
Long before Queensland were setting records and completely dominating the State of Origin landscape, Kennedy was a regular in a Blues side that had many questioning if Queensland’s best days were behind them.
“I remember when we were playing there was talk that Origin was finished because we were so good and this and that,” the former Canberra, Newcastle and Manly back-rower recalls.
“We had a very dominant team and we didn’t lose many back then. I think I played 14 games and lost two, so we had a fairly good side – pretty much all of my Origin memories are good ones.
“But that was silly talk – Origin is never over. It’s the most exciting thing you can do in rugby league. It’s the most intense contest there is and the game that Australians get the most passionate about.
“Obviously Queensland are the top side, we’re in a rebuilding stage… and unfortunately it’s taken six years.”
Having debuted for NSW in Game II of the 1999 series – won 12-8 by the Blues – Kennedy was a regular in the state side for the next seven years and suffered just one series loss in that time (in 2001).
Alongside the likes of Andrew Johns, Danny Buderus, Brad Fittler and Ryan Girdler, he was a key player in the most dominant era ever enjoyed south of the border and built a reputation as a fearsome runner of the football and brutal defender on the edges of the ruck.
So the fact that he finally sees some potential in this current Blues outfit must surely give encouragement to long-suffering New South Wales fans who haven’t tasted success since Kennedy’s Origin farewell in 2005.
“There were some good signs in Game One but the main thing is that they’ve got the right coach – there is no doubt about that,” the 37-year-old says of new mentor Ricky Stuart.
“I had him for one series (in 2005) and he was outstanding. He played an important part in my football career right through.
“He is an intense little bugger, which is great for Origin, and he knows his stuff. He is definitely the right man... I’ve got no doubts about that whatsoever.”
There wasn’t much that Ben Kennedy didn’t achieve during a career that spanned 11 seasons and 195 first grade games.
Having moved from Canberra to Newcastle at the start of the 2000 season, he was a member of the Knights’ 2001 premiership-winning side and still looks back fondly on his time in the Hunter.
“They were some of the best years of my life,” he says. “We were so close and we knew how much that premiership meant to the town, as well as to us, obviously.
“We certainly enjoyed it. That was one of the great things about being up there – we played hard but we also enjoyed things when they came off.”
Kennedy shocked the Knights when he left to finish his career with Manly in 2005, where he was made captain of Des Hasler’s youthful squad and played a key role in their success.
Although he retired at the end of the 2006 season – 12 months before the Sea Eagles reached the first of two consecutive grand finals – he was widely credited with instilling the hunger and work ethic required to enjoy such success.
“The leadership role suited me and I think Manly probably needed it at that stage too,” Kennedy explains.
“They were a fairly young group with Beaver (Steve Menzies) being the exception, but he wasn’t that sort of bloke. He was a pretty-relaxed, easy-going sort of bloke that just went out and played good footy so I guess they needed that leadership, and that’s what I brought.”
Kennedy was highly valued by the Sea Eagles and they tried desperately to sign the big back-rower to a new deal after the 2006 season but after 11 years in the top grade he eventually decided it was time to call it quits.
“I’d had enough,” he recalls. “My body had had enough. I was sick of going to training sore every day and being under the microscope with the media, which was getting so intense.
“It was wearing me down and I was starting to get sick of training a bit – a bit cranky – so I thought, ‘oh well… that’s enough for me, I’ll get out’.”
Never one to actively seek the limelight, Kennedy has slipped quietly into a post-football career in Queensland – of all places – where he and former Canberra team-mate Nathan Sologinkin run the Fresh Extremes Fruit Market.
“You’ve got to do something!” he laughs. “To be honest I fell into it by chance, really.
“I came up here to see a mate after I finished up at Manly and had a few beers with him one New Year’s Eve. He said his father-in-law was selling a pretty good fruit shop up here in Brisbane and I said I was keen to do something. One thing led to another, and here I am.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do but this came up and I took the opportunity.
“It’s been a learning curve and the hours are long – it’s a lot different to when you’re playing footy – but I don’t mind it and everything seems to be going A-okay.”