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Accidental hero: How Fatty Vautin inadvertently saved Bennett's career

Wayne Bennett credits a "magnificent" Paul Vautin run in 1987 as the crossroads moment that saved his Maroons coaching career.

As the veteran mentor takes the Queensland helm for what will be his 23rd State of Origin game as coach in Adelaide on Wednesday, Bennett and Vautin have taken NRL.com behind the scenes of a pivotal moment in Origin history.

After losing the 1986 series 3-0 under Bennett, and the opening game of 1987, the Maroons trailed 6-0 at the SCG just before half-time and were going nowhere.

Darrell Eastlake, in Channel Nine commentary at the time, screams: "Vautin now makes a bustling run and look at the determination on Vautin as he takes it 12 metres out".

On the back of that 20-metre surge the Maroons got an extra set of six, Dale Shearer scored and they looked a different side for the remainder of the game.

Queensland went on to win 12-6, won the decider at Lang Park 10-8 and gave Bennett the first of his five Origin series triumphs as coach.

To set the scene for how important that Vautin run was to be in the context of Bennett's future, the coach recalled a pre-game walk he had with Maroons godfather Dick "Tosser" Turner.

"I knew that if we didn’t win that game and that series that I wouldn’t be coaching anymore at that level," Bennett said.

"I'd gone for a walk with Tosser and he said 'just don’t embarrass the game and the officials in the game. Just resign Wayne if we don’t win'.

Maroons coach Wayne Bennett.
Maroons coach Wayne Bennett. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"I said 'Tosser, I didn’t need you to tell me that. I’d worked that one out'."

He remembers the Vautin run like it was yesterday.

"We were behind. The game was played in the mud at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It was pouring down rain and it had poured down all afternoon," Bennett recalled.

"It was a mess, but Paul took them on. It might have only been 15 or 20 metres, and he’d probably tell you it was 40 or 50 now.

"It was magnificent. Paul ran over three or four of them with just sheer determination and it lifted the whole playing group.

"We never looked back. They never scored another point. Colin Scott couldn’t kick a goal but we scored enough tries to win the game."

As for Bennett's own coaching career, the Vautin surge and victory was decisive.

Full Match Replay: Blues v Maroons - Game 2, 1987

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"I didn’t look back from that moment. I don’t think Paul was running to save my Origin coaching career. He was running like that because of what he believed about Queensland," Bennett chuckled.

"It was great to coach Paul in the Queensland team and he absolutely believed in everything we did and why we did it. He was absolutely committed and wonderful to coach in that arena."

Vautin, who played 22 games for Queensland, was blissfully unaware of the importance Bennett placed on that 1987 run for the next three decades.

It was only a few years ago when he had a one-on-one chat with Bennett that the penny dropped.

"Wayne just said to me 'do you remember that run?' So I looked it up and watched it myself," Vautin told NRL.com.

I didn’t look back from that moment. I don’t think Paul was running to save my Origin coaching career.

Wayne Bennett

"He says we were looking flat and going nowhere. I reckon the run was less than 15 metres but he said 'you knocked Royce Simmons out of the way and then carried two or three with you for five metres on your back. It lifted me and the whole team lifted'.

"We scored in the next set of six and he said that, for him, it changed the whole game for us. I said 'that is very nice of you to say', but that is just what we did.

"I didn’t have much. All I knew was to run as hard as I possibly could when I had the ball. I was lucky enough to make a dent."

Rookie halfback Allan Langer on the run for Queensland in 1987.
Rookie halfback Allan Langer on the run for Queensland in 1987. ©NRL Photos

Journalist Mike Colman, who wrote Vautin’s autobiography, rang Bennett for the book to ask his first impressions of the workhorse forward when he first saw him play as a teenager in Brisbane.

"Wayne said 'his work ethic was good and looked like he might be an OK player', but just OK,” Vautin recalled.

"When I finally got to play under him in 1987 I thought he was fantastic. He was a good football coach and a great mentor. I got on really well with him.

"He talked to me about footy, life in general, my wife and small children and where I wanted to be in 10 years.

"I just thought he was a really nice man with good values."

Vautin was only recently made aware of what was on the line for Bennett on that SCG night in 1987 before his decisive surge. It gave him pause to ponder what might have been.

Wally Lewis thanks Queensland fans after their 1987 series win.
Wally Lewis thanks Queensland fans after their 1987 series win. ©NRL Photos

"I only found out three years ago about the story where Tosser had pulled him aside and said that if we got beaten Wayne would've never coached Queensland again," he said.

"We may not have seen Bennett as the coach he is today if we hadn't won. We probably would, because he's won seven premierships since … but who knows."

Vautin certainly had no idea what was ahead of him when he first met Bennett while playing under 18s for Wests Mitchelton against a Police Academy side mentored by the future record-breaking coach.

We may not have seen Bennett as the coach he is today if we hadn't won.

Paul Vautin

When told of Bennett’s presence before the match he recalled watching the former winger play for Queensland and Brothers and was stoked such an influential figure in the game was about to see him play

"I walked past and said, 'Hello, Mr Bennett' and he said 'Hello, young fella' but that was it," Vautin grinned.

It was also the first time Vautin had met Mal Meninga, who was playing for the opposition, and the 17-year-old redhead got a close up look at his future Maroons teammate when he made a break 20 metres out from the line.

Mal Meninga scores for the Maroons during the 1989 series whitewash.
Mal Meninga scores for the Maroons during the 1989 series whitewash. ©NRL Photos

"I could actually run in those days. I was sprinting away to the line and heard those footsteps behind me," he recalled.

"I look around and there is Mal Meninga charging at me, and he was twice as big as me then. I went 'wow, look at this'. Luckily I took it up a gear and easily scored the try.

"We beat the Police Academy and that was the first time I met Mal and Wayne."

The trio were soon to be part of a famous decade in Queensland history.

Vautin remembers the 1989 Arthur Beetson-coached Maroons side, that swept the Blues away 3-0, as the "best side I ever played in".

However, it was delivering Bennett his first series win as coach in the 1987 decider at Lang Park, won 10-8 by the Maroons, that holds a special place in his heart.

"That to me epitomised what Origin is all about. It was 10-8 at half-time and 10-8 at full-time and that second half … for me if you want to see what Origin is about just watch it," Vautin said.

"I just remember being almost in a daze, but kept running from side to side trying to find something to do and someone to tackle. We were all like that. It was incredible.

"Standing there at Lang Park and looking at my  teammates and all the people in the crowd who were there for you … I was representing them and that meant a lot to me. It was so good.

Full Match Replay: Maroons v Blues - Game 3, 1987

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"Everyone as a kid grows up wanting to play for Australia, which is fantastic, but every year I was playing down in Sydney I would pray and hope that I was playing well enough to get picked for Queensland in Origin.

"I am friends for life with every one of those players. We had such a good time in the camps and I loved the contest of Origin.

"I loved what it meant, and what it meant to me was that you just had to keep turning up.

Wally Lewis gives Paul Vautin a drink at the SCG in 1987.
Wally Lewis gives Paul Vautin a drink at the SCG in 1987. ©NRL Photos/v

"I’d look across the park at the NSW team and I would say, 'Crusher [Noel Cleal] is a better player than me. Ray Price is better than me. Wayne Pearce is better than me, but I am not going to let any of them be better than me tonight. I am going to play better than them'. That is just how I thought."

Bennett and Meninga are back together in a coaching capacity for this year's series.

"Wayne is one of our greatest ever coaches. Mal has won nine series out of 10 and Neil Henry was Mal’s assistant. Isn’t it a dream combo," Vautin said.

Wayne Bennett is chaired off by Martin Bella and Wally Lewis after the 1987 series win.
Wayne Bennett is chaired off by Martin Bella and Wally Lewis after the 1987 series win. ©NRL Photos

Bennett has made some brave decisions with his 27-man squad for the 2020 series, picking 17 debutants, with eight slated to run out onto the Adelaide Oval.

There are parallels with what he did when he first became Maroons coach in 1986, a series Vautin missed with a broken arm.

"In 1986 I came in to make change and to take them in a new direction," Bennett recalled.

"We lost the first game by six points, the second game by four points and the third game by two points.

"After the first game I did what I was to do on a number other occasions, and I suppose I will have to do again now in this series, and that is make a lot of changes to the Queensland team because a lot of them had reached their use-by date.

"Our worst performance was that first game of 1986 and I dropped some legends of the time, but we were able rebuild the team and won the series in 1987, 1988 and 1989 because of decisions made then."