Former Blue labels Fifita the best yet
He was there when his boyhood idol Arthur Beetson led Queensland into the birth of State of Origin in 1980 but former Blues front-rower Lindsay Johnston says Andrew Fifita's Game One performance is the best by a prop in Origin history.
Plucked from obscurity after just 14 first grade games for North Sydney, Johnston was one of six debutants rushed into the New South Wales team for Game Two in 1983 but was at Lang Park three years earlier as a member of the NSW under-18s team, a night forever remembered as the one and only time Beetson ever played for Queensland.
When Johnston moved down from Gunnedah as a 19-year-old to link with Norths he began his apprenticeship by playing a season of reserve grade in 1982 where he lined up against a Parramatta team boasting Beetson and Bob O'Reilly and later a St George reserve grade team containing six internationals.
Currently travelling around Australia with his wife Michelle, NRL.com tracked down Johnston on his way to Uluru and he said watching Fifita cut a swathe through the Queenslanders from his caravan in Darwin was unlike anything he had ever seen before.
"Andrew Fifita is something out of the box," said Johnston, who played 64 games for Norths, Easts and Souths as well as stints with Hull KR and Halifax in the UK.
"He's the best front-rower in a long time. There are lots of good footballers running around but that game the other night that's probably the best performance I've seen from a front-rower in a State of Origin game. It was phenomenal.
"I realise a lot went our way and Queensland were on the back foot but he was responsible for them being on the back foot a lot of the time.
"He's got a step, he's got an offload, he's very hard to pull down.
"He takes a lot of players out of the defensive line every time he takes the ball up, which you want, and he's got a quick play-the-ball."
Like the Blues that have debuted in the past decade Johnston came in at a time when Queensland was brimming with some of the finest players the game has ever produced in Australia.
The Maroons had won five of the first six Origins ever played, prompting Blues selectors and coach Ted Glossop to make wholesale changes in order to try and combat the dominance of the likes of Lewis, Meninga, Miles, Close, Vautin, Niebling and Conescu.
Eleven different players made their Origin debuts for NSW in the first two games of the 1983 series but notification of selection was far different than it is some 30 years on.
"I'm an electrician by trade and I was working out in western Sydney somewhere and I heard it on the wireless that I was to report to the [Sydney] Cricket Ground for a medical," Johnston recalled.
"I turned up and I still had my Norths shorts that I'd played in the weekend before still in the back of the car and we got a T-shirt and a tracksuit and that was about it.
"Coming into the side with established players like Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny, Mick Cronin, Geoff Gerard was the other front-rower and there was another fella from the country, Paul Field from Cootamundra.
"He got into the State of Origin side from the country which doesn't happen these days of course.
"When people talk about footballers, that Queensland side… Mal Meninga, Wally Lewis, Gene Miles, Kerry Boustead, Chris Close, they were great players that we played against and it's great to be able to sit back and say I played against them and held my own."
As for whether this current Blues team is on the verge of turning a king-tide that has been running against them, Johnston is supremely confident he will be watching the series being decided in Game Two, wherever he is on his travels.
"Geez they've had a wonderful side for the past 10 years but I just can't see us getting beat," said Johnston.
"I just can't see it. I've had my doubts in the past but I'm pretty confident in this side that they've got at the moment."