Before I went to Queensland for the 2012 State of Origin decider last week, three games stood out as the three greatest games of rugby league I’ve ever witnessed.
The first was the 1998 preliminary final between Canterbury and Parramatta at the SFS, where the Bulldogs erased a 12-point deficit with seven minutes remaining to tie the scores after 80 minutes and book their passage to the grand final 32 points to 20 in extra time. Darryl Halligan’s inspired goal-kicking. Paul Carige’s brain snap. Craig Polla-Mounter’s attempted field goal. As a seven-year-old watching only his third game of live rugby league, it was a fair introduction to the code.
The second was the 1999 grand final contested by Melbourne and St George-Illawarra, a fixture remarkable for any number of reasons. An expansion club in its second season taking on a merged club in its first; the fancied red V against a well assembled group of Super League castaways, wily veterans and emerging stars. The first grand final at the brand spanking new Stadium Australia, which housed a record crowd of 107,999 to see Jamie Ainscough clip Craig Smith over the head to gift the Storm a penalty try that allowed them to snatch the trophy from the Dragons’ grasp in the most controversial of finishes.
The third – the 2010 qualifying final between the Tigers and the Roosters – probably sat on top of the pile because it involved my Tricolours. It’s extremely difficult to summarise this game because it featured so many breathtaking elements. The media salivated over the clash between newly-crowned Dally M Medallist Todd Carney and the game’s premier No.6 Benji Marshall, and the crowd – a surprisingly low 33,315, considering the hype – was treated to a battle royale. From Marshall and Mitchell Pearce going toe-to-toe, to scarcely-believable try-savers from Carney and Chooks custodian Anthony Minichiello, the Roosters’ comeback from 15-2 down midway through the second half, and Simon Dwyer’s bell-ringer on Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, the football scribes already had more than enough material for their Sunday papers. But Braith Anasta rewrote the headlines with his 80th-minute field goal that sent the game into a golden point that took 20 minutes to settle, eventually put to bed by Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s miraculous intercept. I don’t need to exaggerate any aspect of that semi-final. The facts do the talking.
But I digress. Origin Three 2012 is worthy of joining those games in the very top bracket of games I’ve seen. In fact, it probably takes the gold medal. Not because of the rarity of the circumstances or a string of gob-smacking moments that characterised the other three matches. Rather, the 2012 decider is memorable for the sheer quality of the football.
It’s a dreadful cliche, but it was a game that neither side deserved to lose. While Paul Gallen correctly points out they don’t engrave ‘courage’ or ‘bravery’ onto the shield, simply a stone-cold 2-1 series defeat, NSW were desperately unlucky to lose. Not often can a side lose an Origin decider and win as many friends as the Blues did last Wednesday night.
The fact that they didn’t prevail – after two years of thoughtful preparation under Ricky Stuart, seven years of heartache, and a 2012 campaign where they had looked the stronger side – speaks volumes for the quality of Mal Meninga’s Maroons. Hats off to, arguably, the greatest team rugby league has ever produced.
The intensity of the atmosphere lifted the game to another level. While the Homebush crowd three weeks ago seemed to let the fast pace of the game wash over them, the Lang Park faithful ensured their collective voice was heard by the players. Every time Greg Inglis bumped off a would-be defender, they would rise. When Greg Bird or Anthony Watmough gave the tackled player a bit of extra attention in the play the ball, they would bay for a penalty. And the roar when Queensland notched points was piercing.
Some post-match column inches have been focused on the perceived lack of grace of the Queenslanders, on and off the field. I’m not sure the Blues players and fans could have expected much else. It’s no secret or surprise that the Origin arena is a pretty heated environment that doesn’t often dispense charity. ‘Passion’ is the buzzword repeated ad nauseum.
At the risk of coming across as an embittered New South Welshman (which I probably am, after sitting through 80 minutes at Suncorp), the Queenslanders tend to add a bit of mayo to this whole ‘passion’ line. Especially coming from a football perspective (the round ball code, that is) – where just this month we saw tens of thousands of fans jet in and out of Poland and Ukraine to sing their guts out for 90 minutes and support their nations at great personal expense – it grates to hear banana-benders talk about their zeal for Origin when all they do is catch a 10-minute train to Roma St, sink a few frothies on Caxton St, and jeer Paul Gallen during his commendably composed post-game speech. Doubtless, Origin means plenty to Queensland and Queenslanders. But keep it in perspective.
Origin is like a pageant, with its heroes and villains. About 15 minutes before kickoff, Phil Gould emerged from a tunnel in our corner of the ground and the locals hiss and gesticulate. As the Blues are introduced one by one over the PA, the loudest boos are reserved for the best players: Robbie Farah, a wholly likeable player who has never done anything patently offensive towards Queensland besides wear a sky blue jumper, received a particularly vociferous reaction, probably due to his Game Two heroics. Ricky Stuart’s face was repeatedly flashed on the big screen, like the antagonist sneaking around the stage of a pantomime, inviting the children to respond (in this case, the refreshingly original ‘Ricky’s a wanker’ chant that reaffirmed how threatened the locals felt by the best Blues coach, and team, since Gould himself).
And so Cooper Cronk coolly slots the one-pointer, the Maroons defend their slender advantage, and Queensland lift the State of Origin shield for the seventh time in as many attempts. A deserved reward for a richly talented group of players. Johnathan Thurston, in 24 consecutive appearances including all seven series triumphs, is a master of Origin. Cameron Smith and Billy Slater are elite exponents of their respective positions, and seamlessly transferred their club connection with Cooper Cronk into the interstate arena. The forwards – especially man of the series Nate Myles – were tireless and Queensland’s unique ability to extract outstanding performances from players like Brent Tate and Ashley Harrison is key to their success.
But the ferocity of the boos at least provide this NSW fan with some scant consolation. How much this victory meant to Queensland – the desperation of the crowd and their subsequent elation when the siren sounded – reveals how close Ricky Stuart came to ending their mortgage on the trophy. Maybe next year.