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The 2000 Blues: Origin's greatest performance or its greatest insult?

In the year 2000, an all-conquering NSW Origin side swept Queensland away in an avalanche of points and dazzling football and in the process launched an insult that would echo through the ages.

In the process, they heaped humiliation on top of misery as Blues back-rower Bryan Fletcher tossed an imaginary hand grenade but a very real insult in the 56-16 flogging inflicted in the third match of the series.

It's one that has served as motivation for Queensland through the two decades since – two decades they have largely dominated.

The first two decades of State of Origin had ebbed and flowed, with the Maroons dominating the 1980s before ceding the upper hand through the '90s, and things looked to be returning to an even keel after the northerners won the 1998 series then retained the shield with a hard-fought drawn series a year later.

Interstate supremacy was on a knife's edge and it remained there for a lot of the series; by the end though it looked anything but.

Brad Fittler holds the shield aloft after NSW won the 2000 series.
Brad Fittler holds the shield aloft after NSW won the 2000 series. ©NRL Photos

Looking back at the 2000 Origin series

A typically tough Origin battle

A cursory look at the results from 2000 do not come close to telling the story of a classic, hard-fought Origin series.

The Maroons were arguably the better side for all of game one and most of game two. There was a lot of footy played in the series before those runaway death throes.

It's easy to forget in the decades since but this was a strong Queensland team – a rampaging Gorden Tallis on the left edge, a young Darren Lockyer at fullback, a scheming and underrated Adrian Lam pulling the strings from halfback, a rampaging Marty Lang playing the series of his life, running like a man possessed and tearing his way through the middle. They had the better of game one and should have won but for a huge refereeing clanger.

Pressing the line while up 16-12 late in the game, Lam threw an intercept that was collected by Scott Hill, whose desperate pass was knocked on first by David Furner then by Terry Hill. The Maroons seemed to be expecting a whistle while an opportunistic Brett Kimmorley streaked 50 metres.

When Ryan Girdler scored in the corner to level the scores a couple of plays later, a livid Tallis screamed his objections at Bill Harrigan (the word "cheat" allegedly made an appearance between expletives) and became the second player in Origin history to be sent off.

"There was a bit of a controversial call against us," recalls Maroons hooker Jason Hetherington.

Andrew Johns was the epitome of a super sub for the Blues.
Andrew Johns was the epitome of a super sub for the Blues. ©NRL Photos

"Gordy let fly with both barrels and he found himself sitting in the grandstand.

"I have a feeling he got all the hot water that night because he got in the showers before all the other players!"

Hetherington said for most of the players it was only when they saw the replay they realised there had been a major mistake go against them.

"At the time you don't sort of know but when they showed the replay I thought we had a call that was pretty harsh on us and Gordy decided he was going to let Bill know he thought the decision was wrong too," he adds.

Full Match Replay: Blues v Maroons - Game 1, 2000

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"When you look at the replay, he had a very fair point. I'm guessing Gordy's delivery wasn't real good!

"They all have a laugh about it now. Heat of the moment, Origin, tensions, a lot at stake, Bill comes up with the wrong call but everyone's human."

With 13 on 12 for the final 10 minutes Queensland needed a miracle and when NSW fullback David Peachey crossed for his only try in his only Origin game (outside of the 1997 Super League Tri-Series) a few minutes later, the Blues won 20-16 and went 1-0 up in the series.

Gorden Tallis is marched by Bill Harrigan.
Gorden Tallis is marched by Bill Harrigan. ©NRL Photos

Joey magic breaks the series open

Newcastle magician Andrew Johns returned from injury in game two as a bench utility after veteran Geoff Toovey was asked to play the full game in the series opener.

With the consistent and professional Kimmorley demanding the No.7 jersey, coach Wayne Pearce opted to use the future Immortal in a bench impact role but unlike in the modern game's limited interchange scenario, this was back in the days of unlimited interchanges.

Pearce's impact on this game started on the way to the ground, when he had the team bus pull over out the front of the notorious Caxton Hotel to allow the players to truly soak up the hostile Brisbane atmosphere.

"I remember every player sitting on the left hand side of the bus so we'd pull up out the front of the Caxton Hotel, they'd throw cans of beer at you and hurl abuse at you," says Kimmorley.

For Blues rookie Shaun Timmins it was his first Origin at Suncorp and he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"My first series we took the bus past Caxton Street like you used to be able to do," Timmins recalls.

Blues coach Wayne Pearce.
Blues coach Wayne Pearce. ©NRL Photos

"Wayne Pearce said to stop the bus outside the Caxton and it just got peppered. The bus was getting shaken up, windows were getting full cans of beer thrown at them.

"It did fire us up, we loved it but it was probably a bit of a safety issue! They were hammering the bus, throwing full cans as hard as they could."

On the field, Pearce injected Johns barely 10 minutes into the game to play a roving role as an extra playmaker. Despite his constant threat, the Maroons kept the Blues scoreless in the first half as the home side kicked two penalty goals.

A brilliant Brad Fittler solo effort claimed a lead that was quickly snatched back by a rampaging Tallis but with Queensland leading heading into the final 20 minutes, something special was needed.

Enter Johns.

Full Match Replay: Maroons v Blues - Game 2, 2000

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In the 60th minute and on the last tackle he elected to run, creating space on the right. Timmins chipped ahead only for the ball to deflect off Lockyer's hand back into his bread basket.

The young centre couldn't hide his elation as he leapt over the line but his emotions quickly turned sour as the try turned out to be his last act on a rugby league field for a year and a half.

"Game one was my debut and thought I had a pretty ordinary game. Like a lot of people probably your first game you're a bit overawed, I wasn't as involved as I would have liked," he says.

"Game two I felt a bit more comfortable and scoring that chip and chase off Locky's hand, I ran about 30 metres to score but I went off after that and I was out for a year and a half. I had to sit and watch the third one in the stand which wasn't as fun."

Timmins says he had a niggle in that knee leading into the game which was exacerbated in an accidental collision in the final training run, an opposed session against a junior Blues player.

"I felt all right in the game but after I made that run that was the end of me, I couldn't get up after I scored and ended up having real serious dramas with it. After that run it must have just given way.

"It looked like I might never play again when I had the surgery and I was shattered to miss the big game three."

Blues centre Shaun Timmins.
Blues centre Shaun Timmins. ©NRL Photos

Losing a centre couldn't slow the Johns magic down and it was Scott Hill – playing right centre in Timmins' absence – who scored what should have been the young centre's second tries in as many minutes when Johns jinked from the ruck and fired a perfect cut-out to put Hill through a yawning gap.

The dazzling burst continued as Johns broke the line to set up a David Furner try in the third punch of a savage triple blow that effectively ended the contest.

A trademark Ryan Girdler intercept sealed what was suddenly a lop-sided 28-10 final score against the Maroons.

All records fall before Girdler as the floodgates open

The dead rubber started tensely enough. The Maroons were determined not to go down in a clean sweep while the Blues, with the pressure off, were looking to celebrate in style.

The two teams went scoreless for 15 minutes until intercept king Ryan Girdler spotted a chance off a scrum and raced up on a Julian O'Neill pass to sprint 30 metres and score.

From that moment Girdler and the Blues could simply do no wrong.

Brett Kimmorley on the run for NSW.
Brett Kimmorley on the run for NSW. ©NRL Photos

One of the most mobile and skilful packs ever assembled played as if they were paid per offload, passes that should have been dropped stuck, kicks that should have been fumbled or bounced out landed perfectly for the Blues and try followed try followed try.

Fletcher, Hill, Robbie Kearns, Furner, Ben Kennedy, Jason Stevens Adam Muir… the list of names in the sky-blue pack simply oozed talent and ball-playing ability. The Blues threw 36 offloads in that game, after 30 in game two.

Even their 22 in game one was more than Queensland managed in any game of the series. Highlighting the fact that everything simply stuck, they made just 10 errors – the fewest of either side in any game that series.

It was just one of those games, according to NSW hooker Geoff Toovey.

"When things are going right, everything you do, the balls you shouldn't catch you catch, the kicks that should go out stay in, all those little things come together," Toovey says.

Adds Kimmorley: "It was just a group of guys that had enormous fun in the six weeks of camp, bonded together very well and to have some of those players in the side you just had amazing confidence you were going to win.

"Ryan Girdler scored a try early and for some reason it was just one of those nights where everything you tried to do worked. The floodgates opened.

"The toughness and closeness of winning game one and two when the games were on the line and just the ability to survive those moments or win those moments then game three when you're already 2-0 up it's a bit more of a relaxed, more enjoyable week rather than going in at one-all."

The closeness of the group was as much behind the performance as the calibre of player, Kimmorley believes.

Maroons hooker Jason Hetherington.
Maroons hooker Jason Hetherington. ©NRL Photos

"There were some great characters in the team … game three, I don't think we realised it was going to be the points victory that it ended up being but we obviously had some great players in the team. As a kid, myself, I was in awe of some of those players that were in the team.

"I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to play in the halfback position, Brad Fittler outside me, Tooves was the dummy half at the start of the game then Andrew Johns come on the field.

"We had some amazing players, a guy I thought was an amazing player when I was growing up was Tim Brasher. I got to spend a bit of time with him and mucked around in camp, a bloke that spoke about what Origin was like and had some good times and bad times himself through the years.

"We had Wayne Pearce as a coach who was another guy that was so NSW when you think about Origins and his professionalism and toughness.

"We'd train really hard and practice all these moves then Freddie would grab us and say 'remember all that but these will be the key parts of what Origin's all about'.

"I think it was the last time the bus went down Caxton St as well. The fear of arriving to Suncorp compared to leaving there was a totally different feeling to arriving, terrified of what had just been hurled at you down Caxton Street from full cans of beer to leaving with the victory thinking how amazing State of Origin is."

'That' moment

With his team now up 2-0 in the series and 38-10 in a game three onslaught, Fletcher finished off a stylish team try before launching into a post-try celebration.

He pulled the pin from a Steeden that was now a pretend grenade and lobbed it towards his teammates, who jumped away from the mock explosion in laughter.

Such celebrations were in vogue at the time as players looked for every more creative ways to incorporate the footy and the Blues had plenty to celebrate.

But the fury burning in the eyes of Queensland team manager Chris Close, sitting sideline next to injured five-eighth Ben Ikin who couldn't even bear to look, told the story from the other side.

Full Match Replay: Blues v Maroons - Game 3, 2000

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Hetherington says it wasn't so funny at the time, though he bears no ill will.

"When they started throwing grenades and carrying on, that still haunts me today," he says.

"I don't have a great memory of the first two games but I certainly remember the way game three panned out and obviously it wasn't pretty. Even though it was a dead rubber, you're still representing Queensland and that's 19 years ago but it's still hurting today."

The Blues are adamant there was no disrespect intended.

Blues players scatter in their post-try celebration after Bryan Fletcher scored.
Blues players scatter in their post-try celebration after Bryan Fletcher scored. ©NRL Photos

"I think we'd mucked around a bit during the week in conversation but I don't think anyone said 'if we get to this amount of points this is what's going to happen'," recalls Kimmorley.

"It was one of those games where the points just kept coming. The enjoyment of that kept coming and the grenade became a spur of the moment type thing that on the night was funny and enjoyable."

Toovey laughs that the moment gave Maroons a lifetime of ammunition but says if anything post-try celebrations should be brought back.

"All the hype afterwards was the hand grenade thing, they came out and said how disrespectful it was. Fletch reckons he's given them enough ammunition for years!" Toovey laughs.

He points to South Sydney's "goanna" post-try celebrations earlier this year in honour of a retiring Greg Inglis as just one example of how they can add to the spectacle.

"I think they're great, a little thing, it's over in five seconds, I think it should be encouraged. The kids all love it too, they all try and emulate it," he says.

"I don't recall ours ever being planned, it was just a couple of lunatics that did it!"

A record that may never be broken

Girdler's three tries and 10 goals from as many attempts netted him an individual haul of 32 points, shattering the Origin record of another Blues centre, dual international Michael O'Connor, who scored all 18 points (two tries and five goals) in an 18-2 win in 1985 on his Origin debut.

Girdler also equalled the all-time interstate mark of 32 set by the great Dally Messenger in the game's embryonic years in 1911.

But he almost fell just short of that, according to Toovey.

Ryan Girdler scores for NSW.
Ryan Girdler scores for NSW. ©NRL Photos

The Blues were awarded a scrum off an O'Neill error with 30 seconds to go and with the razzle dazzle well and truly in overdrive the Blues tossed the ball through countless pairs of hands from one side of the field to the other until finally debutant centre Matt Gidley, in for the injured Timmins, crossed for his second try of the game in the corner.

Girdler could do no wrong and snipered the sideline effort between the sticks but he almost didn't get the chance.

"Freddie knew it was my last game and says 'do you want to take the kick' and it was from the sideline," Toovey says.

"Ryan Girdler hadn't missed a goal. I said 'nah nah'. Him kicking that goal got him the point-scoring record."

Queensland players look shattered after their Origin III loss.
Queensland players look shattered after their Origin III loss. ©NRL Photos

The seeds were planted

Hetherington wonders how much of that humiliation was responsible for Queensland's remarkable turnaround just a few short years later, from Origin easy-beats to winning eight series in a row.

"When you look at it now and building towards what was in front of Queensland, it was only a few years down the track Queensland went through the rebuild," he says.

"A young Bill Slater, a young Cameron Smith, a young Johnathan Thurston with Locky still there and Petero [Civoniceva], the senior guys, [coach] Mal [Meninga] came in, the rest of that's history now so who knows, that could have been the start.

"They must have had a look at what was going on and a few years down the track those young guys came in and did a job for Queensland and for a long time after that and it's still going now."