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Origin Legend Q&A: Gary Belcher

One of Queensland's finest fullbacks, Gary Belcher played 16 State of Origin matches and featured in series wins from 1987-1989.

Following the Maroons' upset victory in Wednesday's decider, Belcher gave NRL.com his thoughts on this year's series and some stories from his Origin career including what makes Wayne Bennett special, a "junket" exhibition game in California and his greatest teammates.

Origin Legend Q&A: Gary Belcher

The dust hasn't settled yet, but where do you think 2020 will rank among the Maroons' greatest series victories?

There's been so many. I don't know. It'll be up there, it was fantastic. I didn't agree they were the worst side ever ... I thought they had a lot of rookies and it was going to be difficult.

I'll probably always rank that 1995 team - Fatty [Paul Vautin] was the coach, Gilly [Trevor Gillmeister] was the skipper ... I think that side had greater odds against them as far as [being] up against a more talented team. They had so many newbies that probably wouldn't have even have got a start [in other years].

So, yeah, it's right up there. Very brave and gritty and kind of the typical Wayne Bennett team in the way they played.

You played under Wayne for Souths in the Brisbane competition as well as Canberra and Queensland. What makes him a special coach?

He's very good at getting individuals to play at their best. He simplifies it, that's for sure. He kind of makes you understand what your role is. Definitely never overcomplicates it - it's not a difficult game, it's just a matter of how much effort you can put in. And you do put in for him, for yourself and for the state. He tends to get players wanting to play for him, that's for sure.

Would Queensland and their many rookies have achieved what they did this year without Wayne's guidance?

I think Mal [Meninga, who was assistant coach] would have got the same result. He's the greatest coach we've had, Mal. People will go, 'Oh, but that was a great team [that won from 2006-13]', but hang on - they weren't that great a team. They'd lost two series in a row when Mal took over as well. 

The Maroons had a different fullback each game this series - first AJ Brimson, who was then sidelined by injury, Valentine Holmes and Corey Allan. And Kalyn Ponga was unavailable. Who will be their long-term No.1?

I think Val Holmes showed he's a good fullback but he's a magnificent winger. And he'll be better for the run as well, having his first game in a long time in game two. He was much, much better [on Wednesday] night on the wing. So I think it's down to Brimson and Ponga.

Full Match Replay: Blues v Maroons - Game 2, 1986

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They're both staking claims for it. I guess it depends on who else is fit in what positions. It'd be very hard to leave Kalyn Ponga out of the side, but you never know. He might be that brilliant No.14 ... He's played that role before when he came on at lock a few years ago, and it could be Brimson. One, or the other.

And Cameron Munster - how good was he in the decider?

He was outstanding. I love the way he plays. I love the energy and he wants the ball in hand. He must be difficult to defend against. He's unpredictable and skillful and aggressive. I'm glad he's on our side because he was fantastic.

Gary Belcher leaps high in an Origin match.
Gary Belcher leaps high in an Origin match. ©NRL Photos

Taking you back to the start of your Origin career - what do you remember from your debut in 1986?

I remember we were under a fair bit of pressure because we'd lost the series the year before and then I came in after we'd lost game one in '86. And then we did lose the next two games and the next one in '87, so I didn't get off to a great start.

I just remember wanting to prove to myself that I was up to that standard. I had big question marks, as every one of those players who debuted this series - 14 of them for Queensland, that's bloody unbelievable - would have been wondering if they were up to scratch, if they could perform on that stage.

I was exactly the same. It's not until you really get out there that find out. I think I went in with the attitude that I wasn't going to try anything crazy, I wasn't going to try to be a superstar. I just wanted to be the player that was really reliable at the back, caught everything and tackled everything that he could and didn't make any errors. That's about as much as I can remember. 

After losing your first two Origins, what were you thinking when the team was defeated in game one, 1987?

We were under the pump, I know that, and Wayne was the coach. I remember a meeting, when Fatty came up with the "Queenslander" call, was all about the future of a lot of players. If we didn't win that second game, I think it was pretty blunt with us that there were some careers that weren't going to go any further at State of Origin level.

Gary Belcher enjoyed a successful Origin career.
Gary Belcher enjoyed a successful Origin career. ©NRL Photos

And I know I was one of them - I was a newbie, relatively new to it. It wasn't talking about Wally [Lewis] or Gene Miles or Greg Dowling or those blokes, but I think we all realised how much was at stake.

And not that we didn't anyway, but there was a helluva lot of pressure on to get it right. I think it was in many ways a similar performance to [Wednesday] night.

It was just grit and determination and just tackle, tackle, tackle until you could barely stand up. Blokes like Fatty were just magnificent that night. We just squeezed out a win and then we won again in the next game.

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

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What was the feeling like to win your first series?

It was great. It was a helluva NSW side [in 1987] because they were favourites. It was great. I just loved Queensland and I actually grew up watching our own players beat us playing for the Blues just before State of Origin.

I used to go to all those games. So to be part of a series-winning team was outstanding. We went on a good run there, we won eight [matches] in a row - that's never been done since. And I think in most of them we were underdogs as well.

At the end of the '87 series you played in an exhibition Origin match in California. How was the experience in the US?

Well, we treated it as a junket ... We hired a Caddy - a Cadillac [luxury car] - we had a good time, we had a few drinks. We had a couple the night before the game. We didn't take it super seriously.

I think the Australian Rugby League - the NSW Rugby League at the time - was a bit of a shemozzle. They thought they promoted it well on a radio station over there not realising there was about 150 radio stations and no one really knew.

I had a mate I played footy with in Brisbane over there who didn't even know about it. He just happened to hear about it on the grapevine on the day of the game.

There was a really poor crowd - they said 12,000, I reckon there'd have been 1200. We played on a field that was not the right size, it was a bit smaller because it was a gridiron ground.

Full Match Replay: Blues v Maroons - Game 4, 1987

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I've got good memories of it and a lot of fun times, but the game itself we didn't really click in until half-time. The Blues came out fired up because they thought they were levelling the series, but it was never anything but an exhibition game. We tried to come back in the second half but it was all too late [NSW won 30-18].

It didn't really mean much to us. It was just a great chance to have a trip overseas mid-season and Wayne was the coach as well at that time. We had a great old time.

As soon as the Blues look like they're going to put together a couple of wins, they decide that we can't play

Maroons legend Gary Belcher

Do you think it would work if Origin was taken overseas again?

It depends on the circumstances. If it's a fully-blown, full-on Origin game that's part of the three-game series and they all take it seriously, I think it could work. And if it's an exhibition game, I don't know what the point is.

I know they talk all the time about trying to go into America and maybe other markets ... I think Matty Johns tossed up having a game in England.

Well, at least there's a big interest in rugby over there and a little bit in rugby league and you could try to expand the game that way. But I don't think the US is a deadset market for us. Not in any big way.

After winning in '87 you achieved two consecutive clean sweeps. Did the team feel invincible in a way?

I think we did. We certainly had a great bond. We all loved playing together and we just kept feeding off that success and had a great trust in each other.

There were some amazing players for the Blues who just kept coming through the system. It was a tough time for them, but we just kept finding a way to win and we had some pretty famous victories.

Mal and Wally were in their late 20s and I was 26, 27 - we were kind of at our peak. A lot of players at the time, Tony Currie and Peter Jackson and those blokes, all hitting our peak at the right time.

Full Match Replay: Maroons v Blues - Game 2, 1988

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Alf [Langer was] just coming through. It was a really special time. I'm not sure invincible was the word, but we certainly felt that you'd have to be bloody good to beat us.

On the FOGs website you listed your most forgettable Origin as your final match in 1993. Why?

I just didn't play well. I was just coming back, I'd had two seasons out. The last year, '92, I'd had a knee reco. I came back, I hurt my shoulder a week before the Origin. It wasn't in great shape. I copped a bit of a head knock early and made a mistake early. We were up against it the whole game.

It was my most forgettable but unfortunately those games you tend to remember. Especially when people like you bring them up!

Full Match Replay: Maroons v Blues - Game 1, 1989

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What about positive memories - is there an individual performance that stands out for you?

Actually, in a losing game in 1990 - the first game ever in Melbourne. We played at Olympic Park. I had a big running night, I know that. I felt great. Ricky Stuart got man of the match, but we lost the game really late. They sort of changed the rules mid-game about Alfie being able to steal the ball.

We got beat but I felt then I had a big game. Recently they did some numbers on run metres and I had 320-odd metres or something. I just had one of those games where everything really worked for me, but unfortunately, we didn't come up with the right result. 

You've named Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga as the best players you saw and played with. Can you give an insight into being on the same team as them?

I played a lot with Mal. Four or five years of footy at Souths and then down at Canberra. I was there for eight [years], he was for nine. We're good mates and that really helped. A helluva player and always attracted a lot of attention, so that tended to open up a bit of space for me.

Meninga's fend keeps Chris Mortimer at bay during the 1985 Origin series.
Meninga's fend keeps Chris Mortimer at bay during the 1985 Origin series. ©NRL Photos

But I don't think people realise how skillful Mal was. He honestly could have played halfback or five-eighth if he wasn't so big. He was just so destructive out wide. Really skillful, silky skills and great hand-eye coordination. Just such an all-rounder.

And Wally was the King for good reason. He could dominate a game like no one else. I haven't seen many [do that] since, maybe Andrew Johns. Wally, he was big enough to take on their biggest forward and try to put a shoulder charge on and force a loose ball.

He could do it all, the King. I played a lot of club football against him, he was sort of enemy number one in the '80s. I was at Souths and he was playing for Valleys and then the great Wynnum-Manly sides.

He's unpredictable and skillful and aggressive. I'm glad he's on our side because he was fantastic

Gary Belcher on Cameron Munster

And when I finally came into [Queensland] camp, it was great. He treated me like a mate, a brother, and I really felt like I belonged.

It was a good feeling to get in the dressing room and you'd be nervous before a game because you were coming up against Sterling and Kenny and Roach, all the NSW stars, [but] to have Wally and Mal there always settled the nerves.

What does it mean to be a Queenslander ... Why are the Maroons different?

You'll never know. I [could] try to explain it ... We've got a bit of a chip on our shoulder. I've got to say, the stuff that was going around during the week about this being the worst-ever [Queensland] side, it just made me filthy.

It just brought back all those memories. I just feel so often that as soon as the Blues look like they're going to put together a couple of wins, they decide that we can't play.

That's what fires us up. That had such a big effect on the game [on Wednesday]. I know it fired me up and I know it fired everyone in Queensland up the last few days [before the game]. Maybe when you're little brother you kind of want to prove to everyone that you're better than they think.