Billy Thompson, the Englishman who refereed the inaugural State of Origin match between Queensland and NSW in 1980, has died at the age of 87.
Thompson earned a lasting place in the game's history when he was flown to Brisbane after NSWRL officials demanded a neutral referee for the first interstate match in which players Queenslanders playing in Sydney were chosen for the Maroons.
His willingness to let the players sort each other out so the game could flow helped ensure the success of the Origin concept, which evolved into a three-match series that is now a showpiece of the NRL season.
The brutal encounter, which was won 20-10 by Queensland in front of a capacity Lang Park crowd, sparked the game's greatest rivalry and captured the imagination of fans around the world.
It also provided Thompson with plenty of material for the after-dinner speaking for which he became renowned after his injury-enforced early retirement aged 50 in 1984, following his third Wembley Final between Wigan and Widnes.
Born in Huddersfield, Thompson is probably best remembered by British fans as the first official to dismiss a player in a Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, when in 1971 he showed the red card to the Leeds centre Syd Hynes following a clash with Alex Murphy of Leigh.
Rugby Football League CEO Ralph Rimmer paid tribute to Thompson as one of the few referees who had transcended the sport.
“I got to know Billy well in my time at the Huddersfield club, and what a character," Rimmer said. "But that shouldn’t obscure the fact he also had an outstanding career as a referee.
“He was appointed to dozens of major matches, becoming a familiar figure to BBC television audiences, and you only have to speak to players of that era to appreciate the respect in which he was held.
“He continued as an ambassador for the game in his after-dinner speaking, and remained a regular at Huddersfield fixtures, where he was always generous to the many supporters who wanted a chat.
“On behalf of the RFL and the wider game, our best wishes to Billy’s family and friends.”
Thompson was added to the RFL’s Grade One list of officials in 1967 and took charge of 17 Tests, including the 1977 World Cup Final in Sydney.
The late, great Eric Ashton, the former Wigan and Great Britain captain, and St Helens chairman, summed up his contribution on his retirement.
“When the history of Rugby League is written, fitting tribute will be paid to many of the great referees - and foremost among those names will be that of Billy Thompson," Ashton said.