Thaiday's career shaped by Origin curtain raiser
On Wednesday night it will be almost 13 years to the day when Sam Thaiday first ran out onto ANZ Stadium in a match that would define his whole rugby league career.
However, the venue for where it all began for Thaiday wasn't Sydney's Olympic Stadium but rather the Queensland Sport and Athletics Centre, more commonly known by its former names QE II or ANZ Stadium when it was the home ground of the Brisbane Broncos from 1993 to 2003.
The date was Wednesday June 5, 2002, and amongst the 48,000 passionate Queenslanders in attendance to watch the Maroons level the series with a 26-18 victory was a 17-year-old self-confessed chubby kid from Townsville.
Thaiday had only travelled down to the big smoke of Brisbane on a handful of occasions prior to that date and had been at the old ANZ Stadium once before to represent North Queensland in Little Athletics.
In this instance Thaiday was in town to play for the Queensland under-17s against their New South Wales counterparts in the curtain raiser for Origin II.
Coming up against red-hot side with a forward pack boasting future household names such as Sonny Bill Williams, Ashton Sims, Keith Galloway, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Bronson Harrison, Heath L'Estrange, Justin Poore and former Gold Coast and Roosters forward Daniel Conn, the junior Maroons were flogged 40-16 by the Mick Potter-led Blues.
The only players in the Maroons side that were able to carve out meaningful NRL careers were Thaiday, South Sydney's Ben Lowe and former Penrith hooker Paul Aiton.
Despite the lopsided scoreboard on that night, Thaiday performed admirably for Queensland after coming off the bench and refusing to take a backwards step against a monster Blues pack.
"They had a gun team and a lot of players who went on to play NRL," Thaiday told NRL.com.
"We were a lot smaller team. We were the underdogs big time – it was like men playing against kids – it was a tough old clash.
"They had players like Sonny Bill-Williams, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and big Keith Galloway. They had some fantastic forwards and we struggled throughout the whole match.
"I hung in there in a team which was full of these young kids that were probably out of their league."
Only minutes after entering the match Thaiday had found himself inside the middle of an on-field brawl, taking on half the NSW team in a typical push-and-shove showdown and being sin-binned for 10 minutes in the process.
Upon returning to the field the back-rower produced the typical bustling, hard-running and hard-hitting display which rugby league fans have become accustomed to watching over his 218-game NRL career.
Thaiday's actions that night raised the eyebrows of Queensland and Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett, who instructed Broncos' recruiter, the late Cyril Connell, to sign up the enforcer who attended Kirwin State High School.
"I just tried to do my best that night and I was lucky enough that I put in a good enough performance that Wayne Bennett noticed me out there on the field. It wasn't long after that he'd sent up a couple of recruitment agents up to Townsville to sign me," Thaiday said.
"So that was probably a turning point game in my whole career that put me on the map as a rugby league player and has put me in the position I am today."
Just over 13 months later Thaiday would make his NRL debut for the 'Baby Broncos' in a 40-4 hiding against the Bulldogs at a recently redeveloped Suncorp Stadium.
He made his Origin debut in Game One, 2006, right at the beginning of Queensland's record eight-straight series victories which only ended last year.
Now 29 with a further 217 NRL games, 28 Tests and 21 Origins under his belt, the former Brisbane skipper credits the stance he took against the NSW pack in that interstate curtain-raiser as a defining coming-of-age moment during his formative years.
"It was kind of like the big brother verse the little brother and I was probably at that stage of my life at home where I stopped taking crap from my older brother and I took that to the footy field as well," he said.
"I hadn't been down [to Brisbane] too many times and then the next time I was there was for the junior State of Origin team. Brisbane is a big place compared to Townsville and I was probably out of my depth, but I just enjoyed every second of it.
"I think I was just so happy and proud to be in the Queensland team – it was the first Queensland team I'd ever made.
"I used to sit in the lounge room at home with mum and dad and my brothers watching rugby league and State of Origin and seeing what these Queenslanders did, and to put that jersey on myself and represent my state – I just wanted to make sure I went out there and did them proud."
The Townsville Brothers junior still has fond memories of watching his Queensland Origin heroes in action during the main game, with one of those Maroons being current club and Origin teammate Justin Hodges.
Hodges endured a forgettable Origin debut that night after throwing two in-goal passes which failed to find their target in fullback Darren Lockyer, gifting the Blues two tries in the process.
"It was all a blur. After our game I was just so excited and pumped to just even be there and be part of the State of Origin," Thaiday added.
"We got to see the main team warm up and I remember sitting on the old tin stands at ANZ and you'd bang your feet and make a great noise.
"I'd only ever sat on the grass hill at Dairy Farmers Stadium back in those days watching the Cowboys roll around so to be at ANZ sitting in the stands watching Queensland and New South Wales running around was the best night of my life really.
"I had no idea four or five months later I'd be moving down to Brisbane to start training with the Broncos.
"It was a good experience and I'm glad I did it – it all worked out for me."