What makes State of Origin so special?
It's a question that is both simple to answer and impossible to explain all at the same time.
What began with a brave gamble in 1980 by Ron McAuliffe and Kevin Humphreys to try and breath life back into interstate football has morphed into a sporting juggernaut.
The magic is in the names ... Beetson, Raudonikis, Lewis, Langer, Lockyer, Mortimer, Daley, Fittler, Johns, Thurston and Smith.
And the magic is in the games ... the first ever at The Cauldron, the first at the MCG in ’94, the first Blues breakthrough in ’85.
The last time The King graced the Origin stage and waved goodbye with his children in his arms, when Freddy waved goodbye with a try and a thumping win, Locky's farewell when his great mate JT emerged from the sheds in a wheelchair to share the moment.
Every year we are caught up in Origin’s spell, starting with the selection speculation, then the anticipation and finally the exhilaration of three ripping contests between the best players on the planet.
Way back in 1980 we tuned in to watch that first ever match at Lang Park to see what this State of Origin caper was all about.
To see whether Big Artie, at 35 years young, could turn back the Blue tide and avenge years of Maroon misery.
Or would Tom Terrific and the pride of NSW carry on a dominance that had seen the men from south of the border win 52 of the previous 60 interstate clashes.
Would Origin be a flash in the pan? Would fans embrace the concept?
Thankfully the answers turned out to be a resounding ‘no’ and ‘yes’ and four decades later we can revel in its success and reflect on a cavalcade of magic moments.
Below is an extract from 40 years of Origin: The Magic, The Moments, The Memories, written by NRL.com senior journalist and former Rugby League Week editor Martin Lenehan. It will be on sale soon but you can pre-order a copy through publisher Bauer Books. Enter the promo code 25Off at checkout to receive a 25% discount.
Equal parts mate, motivator and man manager, the coaches who’ve survived and prospered in the Origin pressure cooker have chosen to teach the history of the jersey rather than complicated game plans.
“Origin is a lot more about the camaraderie and connectivity and you have to create an environment where that connection is very strong,” says former Blues mentor Wayne Pearce, one of only three men to feature in a series clean sweep as a player and a coach, alongside revered Maroons Mal Meninga and Paul Vautin.
“Successful Origin coaches have been good at understanding that principle. The folklore of Origin is something the coaches all let their players understand."
And when it comes to the folklore of footy’s fiercest rivalry, who better to inspire Generation Next than the 13th Immortal Meninga, who was there on opening night in 1980 and pulled on the maroon jersey 32 times in a glittering career.
“Mal has that aura, and it grew and grew the more series he kept winning as our coach,” says Darren Lockyer.
“There was already a level of respect for his playing deeds, then throw in winning all those series and the respect skyrocketed. Mal is really good at motivating blokes for a common cause. He’s a big man and he’s imposing so when he speaks, people listen.”
A decade before Meninga’s remarkable reign began, "Fatty" Vautin had steered an unheralded, unfashionable and largely unrecognisable Maroons team to one of the most celebrated series wins in Origin history.
Minus their Super League stars and with a coach renowned more for his Footy Show than his footy brain, the 1995 Maroons defied the odds and the doomsayers to sweep a Blues side brimming with big names.
No fewer than nine players debuted for Queensland in Game One, a dour, tryless affair which Vautin’s men won 2-0.
Origin Classic: Game II, 1991
On to the iconic MCG where fists and insults flew but despite all the Blues’ bluster it was the underdogs who wrapped up the series with a 20-12 win.
By the time they hit home turf for the “dead” rubber, you could have forgiven Queensland for dropping their intensity, but instead they raised the bar even higher to run in four tries and run out 24-16 victors.
Most pundits were left scratching their heads but for captain Trevor Gillmeister there was never any doubt that his former Origin roomie Vautin could lead this motley Maroon crew to a life-changing triumph.
“I told Fatty we wouldn’t beat them with talent because they had nine or 10 Kangaroos, so we would have to beat them on ticker and having a go and bonding,” says Gillmeister, who famously climbed out of his hospital bed to take the field in Game Three because he couldn’t stomach the idea of letting his mates down.
“Fatty said ‘old school bonding?’ and I said ‘yes, that’s the only way’.
"He got Chris Close up to speak about what Origin meant to him and he got six words out and had to sit down, he could not talk any more.
“Robbie O’Davis was sitting beside me and said, ‘Give me a jersey, I want to play now’.”
And play they did, like men possessed and like no one really thought they could - except the funnyman with the Midas touch and the hardman with the common touch.