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Origin ate rugby league: Tracing the roots of a great interstate rivalry

Dally Messenger will forever be known in rugby league folklore as the namesake of the NRL's most prestigious medal.

But perhaps a lesser known fact about the Immortal is that he represented NSW, Queensland, Australia and New Zealand throughout his pioneering career.

It's the type of fascinating detail that revered author Alan Whiticker has strived to highlight and preserve with his latest book, The State of Origin Companion, published in May.

Compiled to align with State of Origin's 40th anniversary ahead of an unprecedented end-of-season series kicking off on November 4, the book traces interstate football back to the game's inception.

"State of Origin has the tendency to dwarf a lot of history and rugby league. It's such a juggernaut – that's why I called one of the chapters The game that ate rugby league," he told NRL.com.

"It's overshadowed, for a long time, Test football. But it also overshadowed the 80 years of interstate football and interstate internationals which came before it.

"I thought, 40 years of State of Origin – by all means let's have a look at what a great 40 years it's been.

"But let's go right back to 1908 and look at all the traditional interstate matches and also the times when NSW and Queensland took on touring international teams. They were like mini-Tests."

All interstate matches played before 1980 are featured while internationals against NSW and Queensland are detailed for the first time, according to the book's blurb.

Whiticker began working on the project to coincide with Origin's 20th anniversary in 2000, but found it too difficult to cross-reference information with the internet still in its infancy.

He remembered interstate rugby league as having "lost its lustre" in the 1970s when players represented their state of residence.

"What happened was, as history shows us, NSW bought all the good players from Queensland because we had wealthy leagues clubs and there was no salary cap," he said.

"So a team like St George could have internationals running around in second grade and third grade, as they did. NSW clubs tended to buy and warehouse all the good talent, so interstate rugby league in the '70s was pretty much dead.

"But I liked when, say, Great Britain was coming out for a Test series and they'd play NSW. And they were really good matches because NSW would try and beat Great Britain [and] Great Britain had filled a Test-strength side. It really gauged how well Australia was going to go.

"Anywhere I looked, there were no records of those matches. And I thought, well, that's a whole history of rugby league that has been lost.

"And secondly, when 2008 [the centenary of rugby league] came around and a lot of writers like myself started looking at 1908, 1909 [games, it was] NSW and Queensland versus New Zealand, Great Britain and the New Zealand Maori teams that held the game together because they drew huge crowds.

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"Suburban grounds you drew one or two thousand, but those games at the SCG and the Brisbane Agricultural Ground, they drew 40, 50, 60-thousand people. And that was the lifeblood of the game."

Whiticker reckons the comprehensive The State of Origin Companion book is perfect for the new breed of footy fan, a generation he described as being "stat heads".

It's also great for older supporters wanting to reminisce.

"Dally Messenger, he was such a good player, but he played for NSW one match, then he played for Queensland, then he played for New Zealand [in 1908]. He was just too good to leave out," Whiticker said.

"So little anomalies like that are really good to look at, and also the team line-ups. And if you don't know how good Clive Churchill was, have a look at this book and see how many times his name pops up.

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"He was everywhere in the '50s and that's why he was so good."

Never before has Origin been played at the conclusion of the club season. Whiticker thinks it could be a good thing.

"Interestingly enough, Russell Crowe said years ago when he got involved with South Sydney that we had the rugby league season all wrong," he said.

"We had the highlight in the middle of the season and then we tried to gazump that with the grand final – and then tried to have any leftover interest for a Test match.

"In a film, the rugby league season should be club games, grand final, State of Origin, Test matches – finish with the strongest.

"This has given us a chance and I know the NRL are looking at it – do we have State of Origin at the end of the season [permanently]?"

Whiticker, who started out as a school teacher before transitioning into writing about footy for a newspaper and has now penned more than 30 books, tipped NSW to clinch a third consecutive series.

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"All credit to Brad Fittler; he's enthused State of Origin with a bit of passion again. The Blues have a lot of passion," he said.

"It's infectious to watch. I like watching the young guys having a go for Fittler. I think beware Queensland – an undermanned Queensland team's very dangerous, they've done it time and time again.

"But it'll be interesting to see how they go this year. I think the Blues will win but Queensland are going to be looking towards the future."

The State of Origin Companion by Alan Whiticker, New Holland Publishers, $39.99, available from all good book retailers or online at www.newhollandpublishers.com.