Former Queensland captain Darren Lockyer is sitting in the Origin themed meeting room on level 1 of Rugby League Central, iconic player names forever to be etched in time adorn jerseys on the wall behind him, indeed his own name and famous number six jersey hangs just above his left shoulder.
Like Shearer, Lewis, Moore and Meninga before him, Lockyer has added a rich chapter to the Origin legend and as he talks about those final minutes before an Origin kick-off, you can sense the tradition has been passed on through the ages. The names on the jersey change, the game rolls-on, just as it always has.
It is Rugby League’s showpiece event, a parochial crowd is hitting fever pitch fuelled by weeks of hype, endless column inches, highlight reels and cold amber ales. The music in the stadium is pumping, the base drives deep into the psyche, flames are shooting into the cool night air, a voice booms over the PA system, inciting the crowd, the stadium is a powder keg ready to explode just minutes before kick-off to State of Origin.
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Tucked a stone’s throw away from the commotion, just a short walk up the player tunnel into the inner sanctum, the two teams are preparing for battle, preparing to give everything for their state. In a few short minutes they will put their bodies on the line, push themselves through total exhaustion, then give a little more.
Every movement, every play and every decision will be watched and analysed by millions. It is the ultimate test for any Rugby League player. A high octane pressure cooker to test the strongest of mind. But amidst all the noise, all the vibrato and all the weeks of build-up, while everyone awaits the fireworks in the cauldron, in the final minutes in the sheds, Lockyer reveals there is an eerie silence.
It pervades the dressing rooms, every noise made rings out unchallenged. The concentrated silence only broken by a little knock on the door signaling the two minute warning, the point of no return. Game time. Origin time.
“The only time you never really warm-up on the field is at Origin,” Lockyer tells NRL.com.
“It is such an intense contest and everyone is so focussed, both teams warm-up inside the dressing rooms and it is very quiet. It is almost like the calm before the storm. Everyone is so focussed and nervous.
“I think the really good players that play at this level, it is not about talking, it is about doing. That is why it is quiet. They know what they need to do and they are just focussed on that.”
The game starts with supercharged adrenalin as both sides fly into tackles, desperate to assert their will on the opposition. It is about making a statement, sending a message. The big hits and collisions, it is par for the course. As the pre-game nerves are now transformed into raw energy.
For this is Origin and according to the most capped player in this arena, skill counts for naught.
“Over the years there are a lot of players who have excelled at club footy, but have found it difficult at Origin level,” Lockyer says.
“And Vice-versa. Some players have performed very well in the Origin arena, but don’t excel week in and out at club level.
“It is not about skill, it is about what is between the ears. The players who are mentally tough, they are the ones who do well at Origin.
“Are there players that are made or born for Origin? Absolutely.”
It is something of an ironical contradiction, one of the greatest and most gifted players to ever grace the game, seemingly destined for immortality, he who ended up breaking the all-time Origin appearances record talking about skill not mattering. Nevertheless Lockyer maintains that Origin is a different beast.
“No doubt it is the best of the best, but it goes in reverse in terms of doing the little things really well with intensity” Lockyer explains.
“It is not a matter of skill, Origin, it is about the mind. It is keeping it simple, but doing those things really well.
“A lot of Origin games are so close, that it is won on that cover tackle, or the moment a player dived on the ball. It is the little things that probably get missed by the public, that make the difference.”
If it wasn’t the former Queensland and Australian captain and four-time premiership winner talking, you would pass the comments off as another football cliché. But not Lockyer. Sitting comfortably in his seat, metres away from the New South Wales Rugby League offices, he is not offering cheap lines.
After years of being a constant thorn in their side, they would do well to listen to listen in to the conversation.
It has always been clear that Lockyer is one of the most articulate and deep thinkers in the game. After masterminding and playing a massive part in Queensland’s seven straight series wins, there is no doubting his Rugby League acumen.
When Lockyer says that skill doesn’t matter, he means it. Skill only gets you so far. When he says that doing the little things to perfection is the difference, it sounds so simple. But at the sheer breakneck pace and intensity that Origin is played at, Origin’s most capped player says that then more than ever, getting the basics right is king.
Now watching from the sidelines, two years removed from the spotlight, Lockyer knows his time in the thick of the action has gone.
“I look and watch from a distance now and am privileged that I was a part of that for a certain time,” Lockyer smiles.
“I was fortunate to have a great career and to play Origin for so long, but you know you can’t play for ever.
“I have to say though when Cooper [Cronk] kicked the field goal last year and they won the game, for me it was a great moment, but there was sort of something missing. Because you would love to be out there.”
Talking just days after his wife gave birth to their third child, a third boy (that’s right, there are three young Lockyer’s biding their time to torment Blues fans for years to come) Lockyer is content and happy with the next chapter in his life.
As he joins the players who came before him, now legends - all of them now proudly hanging behind him on the wall in the little meeting room at Rugby League Central, his playing days are now gone, the torch has been passed on to the next generation. But they’ll never be forgotten.
As for those quiet moments where the sound of silence is deafening – with three young boys, those moments are probably well behind him too.