Like just about every person in Queensland tonight, John Buttigieg and the residents of Mt Isa will be tuned in to cheer Darren Lockyer home as he dons the Maroon jumper for the final time.
Yet it is with a tinge of sadness that the former Queensland prop – who played three games for the Cane Toads back in 2001-02 – will watch one of the biggest games in State of Origin history.
As passionate about the great game of rugby league as ever, it was only 12 months ago that Buttigieg was being paraded around town as the new high-profile coach of promising development side Mt Isa Bulls but a year on and the side no longer exists.
“I was coaching the team last year but the league is not as strong as it used to be around here and I had a lot of trouble getting guys to training,” he explains. “A lot of the guys I had last year just couldn’t make it for a number of reasons and preferred to just turn up on the weekends and have a bit of a run around. It’s a shame because there is a fair bit of talent out here.
“I’d like to see it get back to where it was. I don’t know what you put it all down to but trying to get it back is a lot of work for one person. It would be good to see the QRL get behind it a bit more and help out but they look after the whole of Queensland which as you know is a pretty big area.”
Having joined the police force following his retirement from rugby league in 2003, Buttigieg moved to Mt Isa early last year to take up a job monitoring government organisations and although he is reluctant to go into any great detail on his day-to-day duties – stating merely that ‘there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes’ – he remains a proud Queenslander when it comes to Origin time.
“I mean, pretty much everyone follows it out here which is why I’d like to see rugby league get back to where it was,” he continues.
“It definitely gets pretty competitive in the office here and I copped a bit of flak after the loss in the second game. But as I said to them there is always a third game and I’m sure I’ll be giving it back to them tonight.”
Buttigieg might not boast the record 36 State of Origin appearances that Lockyer will reach tonight, but he did play alongside the great man in the Maroon jersey and was part of one of Queensland’s most-famous victories alongside North Queensland team-mates Paul Bowman and John Doyle in 2001.
Touted as underdogs following a series whitewash and record 56-16 Game Three loss the year before, Buttigieg scored a try and enjoyed a dream debut as Queensland swamped NSW 34-16 before wrapping up the series in the decider six weeks later.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” the big man recalls. “The whole build-up to the game and running onto the ground, coming away with the win and then being able to share the moment with Paul Bowman and Doyley – it was definitely a career highlight.
“It’s a great memory and even today, the passion is always there and the hatred for NSW hasn’t gone anywhere either.”
Much like his State of Origin career, Buttigieg’s stay in the NRL was relatively short-lived as well. Forced to retire in 2003 due to ongoing knee problems that saw him struggle through his final 12 months, he finished with 101 games for the Cowboys yet his impact was significant and he will always be remembered as a key figure in the club’s rise from perennial battlers to genuine rugby league powerhouse.
“I think that was the biggest thing for me,” he explains when asked what stands out most from his time in Townsville.
“There wasn’t really a highlight but just to see the club develop over that time from where we started and to where we are now. When they played in the grand final a few years ago (2005), it was great to see the club come so far. “To know I was part of that during the early stages is very rewarding.”