The day Mal blew it for the Maroons

Laurie Daley and Mal Meninga will take the notion of ‘Mate against Mate’ up a notch this year when they plot against each other from State of Origin’s coaching boxes.

It is doubtful if two men on either side of State of Origin’s divide have shared as much history.

Sure, we’ve had Ricky Stuart versus Meninga and we watched with some discomfort when Melbourne’s Craig Bellamy tried to bring down his superstar duo Billy Slater and Cameron Smith.

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The ‘Mate against Mate’ catch cry started on Origin’s Day One with Arthur Beetson and Mick Cronin and their celebrated confrontation at Lang Park. Down the years there have been countless examples of clubmates clashing, sometimes heatedly, when they have worn opposing Origin jerseys.

The Daley-Meninga association goes back more than 25 years, to when Daley arrived at Canberra as a 17-year-old from Junee. As teammates, they shared the triumph of three premiership victories together and Daley played under Meninga’s captaincy for both the Raiders and Australia. They toured together on two occasions with the Kangaroos.

Within three years of Meninga’s retirement as a player, he was back at Canberra as coach, and his association with Daley resumed until Daley hung up his boots in 2000.

At State of Origin level, they were opposed as centres and opposed as captains. Their confrontations became part of Origin legend. In Game Two of 1993, they were involved in a moment as symbolic as any on the Origin stage. New South Wales led 16-12 with only minutes remaining when Meninga made a 40-metre break from his own half. There was no-one in front of the Maroon colossus but Daley chased from a long way back across field. Meninga looked around to see Daley bearing down on him but instead of taking him on and trying to beat him with a fend or a bump, as he would have done earlier in his career, Meninga opted to pass back in-field where Queensland forward Mark Hohn spilled the ball and the game was all over. 

Blues coach Phil Gould rated the moment as one of huge significance. He called Meninga’s decision not to engage Daley as “a display of huge respect for his younger opponent”. Writing about the incident in recent years, Gould said: “I saw this as a magic moment where one great champion passed the baton to the young man Meninga himself had helped develop into a top-liner.”

Looking back this week, Daley had a clear memory of the incident but with typical modesty, was less convinced of its significance. “I saw it as my responsibility to tackle Mal, and that was it,” he said. “Of course there is a huge amount of respect between us – there always has been – but I will leave it to others to talk about the significance. I was just making a tackle.”

Daley’s respect for Meninga was put to the test in the 1994 series decider. Meninga was preparing for the final game of his Origin career and was an overwhelming sentimental favourite at a packed Suncorp Stadium.

Daley was in charge of the Blues and had to convince his teammates that it was New South Wales who deserved to win, not Meninga and his Maroons. Daley described the situation in his 2000 autobiography, Always a Winner: “As a close friend and clubmate of Mal’s, I thought it was vital that I let my New South Wales teammates know just how I felt about this game. “I’ve never been one to scream and shout but on this occasion I had to get my point across with some force. ‘F--- Mal, this is our game,’ I told them. ‘Mal’s been on Kangaroo tours, he’s won grand finals, he’s won State of Origin series. This is our game. We deserve it more than they do.’

Daley’s words rang true for the Blues, who dominated the contest from start to finish, winning 27-12.

So far, Daley has the wood on his great mate and rival, winning eight of the 14 Origin games in which they were opposed as players, and six of the nine as opposing captains, including three successive series wins.

Meninga, with seven consecutive series victories under his belt as coach, is a formidable opponent.

Daley v Meninga: It promises to be great Origin theatre!