State of Origin I, 2012
I am on the 112 tram, heading down Brunswick St, Fitzroy. That would be Fitzroy, the first suburb of Melbourne; the suburb immediately north of the CBD; the once working class suburb situated between Collingwood and Carlton; the suburb of the great Maroons, indeed the first Maroons, who dominated the VFL before rugby league was invented. Yes, Melbourne: State of Origin rugby league is back in Melbourne Town.
When I got on at Merri Creek (which once provided the sticky silty black soil for the MCG wicket), there was one maroon scarf on the whole tram: worn by a young woman as nothing more than a fashion accessory. But near the Brunswick Street Oval a trio of visiting (bescarfed) Queenslanders jump on (with a six-pack).
“Them cameras work mate?” says the young bloke nodding at the big-brother domes in the roof.
“I reckon they would be,” I say.
He cracks open a stubby. And points at the camera, “Cheers!”
And they all laugh the laugh of the free.
More rugby league fans get on along Brunswick Street and especially along Collins Street as we head towards Docklands. A Kiwi Queensland contingent (“Hey bro, you fuckin’ got no colour on bro. What’s fuckin’ wrong with you bro?” “I got maroon jocks on bro.”) jump on. And more and more, including some blue. But a lot of maroon.
“Cane toads and cockroaches off hear,” says the driver before the tram turns left to South Melbourne.
The throng is full of boys on tour, and families on tour, and expats and (I suppose) a few locals. Some rough heads among them all too. Looks like every second bastard has been a prop forward and spent time in the tattoo parlour. There’s an Ormeau jumper. And a Townsville track suit.
On the footbridge I can smell rugby league: the waft of weed, just like the old days at Lang Park when it still had a shoulder to shoulder terrace and it could occasionally get like the English soccer; where blokes drank XXXX cans and peed into them and the atmosphere was wild. Loyal and wild. Brisbane felt like a frontier town still. With a tropical madness and a rage against anything south.
What rage there was in that first game in 1980 when we wondered whether this State of Origin caper had any merit, any substance. Whether it meant anything at all. What rage, too, the following year: New South Wales led 15-0 when a Son of the North called Rover assured us the Maroons would come storming home, and they did, and there wasn’t’ enough rum in Bundaberg for the party.
You can almost see the wavy-line waft of the weed like the smell of apple pie in the cartoons and thinking of that makes me giggle as does the busker dressed as a penguin and playing the bagpipes. The tune is known to no-one, and I can’t find another penguin to ask.
But it has that sort of atmosphere. That we’re-here-so-look-out atmosphere. And we’re in Melbourne.
I speak on the phone to my Brisbane mates who have gathered together in Indooroopilly, parts of which went under in the flood. They are with their kids, who possess a new generation of Queensland rage which sits alongside the Queensland laid-backness . They also love the game, and they love Origin night because that’s what they’ve known. It is big now; it’s replaced Cracker Night, and Easter, but I doubt it will replace Christmas. It’s as much-loved as an RDO. They are eating spag bog, and drinking red, and trying to think of ways Queensland can lose.
I keep walking and I am surprised at the sea of maroon, and the number of jumpers with 6 and Lewis on their backs, that roof-tilers and truck-drivers have squeezed into. Ah, Wally. Had he been a soccer player the world would know him. But in this quaint game played in a small radius around Huddersfield, a smaller one around Auckland and in two Australian states he is as ordinary as the sago cannister.
Of the many things about State of Origin, and about rugby league, I love its ordinariness the most. The sheer naivete of those involved. Blokes, who if they ever read Grapes of Wrath, would be talking about how they could have fixed the motor on the old tilly when they were on the move. I love how you can still see the links between The Footy Show and Miss O’Connell’s Grade 3 classroom at Lutwyche Primary. It’s all so real in a way that Australian footy at the highest level is not anymore. And blokes like Alfy (who’ll be running the water) and Kevvy and Wal can just wander down to Stones Corner to get the paper and buy a custard apple or a mango or a Weis’s Fruito.
I get inside and it’s chockers. Just in time for the players to run out, and the anthem. Annie Hall is ready on the podium and there isn’t a house north of the Murray where those watching haven’t said, “It’s Fatty’s girl.”
Bizarrely I feel like I am at a school swimming carnival. There are two major sections on the city side: a maroon section and a blue section. It is very odd in an Australian crowd.
There’s Phil Gould looking more and more like a polar bear, heading back upstairs to commentate and to agree with Rabs Warren for once. Even the callers wear their colours.
I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. I have thought about it, analysed it, written about it, and tried to explain it. I have been distant from it, yet I am happy to acknowledge that at this moment, as the Maroons stand together, I feel like a Queenslander. I feel like an insider: like the bloke from Melbourne near me wouldn’t know who Jackie MacDonald was, or wouldn’t have been on the brewery tour at XXXX, or had an opener that pierced the top of those big cans of Golden Circle pineapple juice.
The ten days of build-up is released with the kick-off and Origin is alive in Melbourne. The first crunching tackles rattle the pylons. It’s a wild beast, Origin. Raw. Powerful. The big blokes matter. They’re all big blokes, but the biggest blokes really matter. Petero and Matt Scott for Queensland. The inspirational Paul Gallen and James Tamou for the Blues.
In the early minutes the Blues have all the football, but the contest, while robust, lacks a bit of fire. It soon hots up with the New South forwards making good yards while the Maroons are back-pedalling. Someone yells, “Put ‘em on-side.” Which is quintessentially time-honoured insofar as calls from a rugby league crowd are concerned.
The Queenslanders look a little stunned as the Blues continue to come at them. The Maroons’ sets are pedestrian, lacking sparkle. They are one out. No hands. Flat. Get-back-into-it football.
The game has just settled into a rhythm (New South Wales’s) when Farrah puts up a kick. From the scrambled contest Uate takes possession and falls over the line. The ball has hit arms and heads and backs which means the video ref has a bit to work out. He awards the try. Carney misses. 4-0.
Again, New South attack and only frantic defence holds them out, the most frantic of which is a last-ditch tackle to hold a Blue up.
Queensland still aren’t really in the game, but the Blues aren’t able to take advantage. But a few things facilitate a change. The two Queensland props are replaced by Hannant and Shillington who start to win metres in what has been known for a century as ‘up the guts’. It is clear they are fresh and their impact lasts for a good while. This allows Thurston to throw the ball around a bit, and they look more dangerous.
Origin would not be Origin without a donnybrook when the hotheads come from everywhere to throw a punch. Having watched his teammate suffer the gross indignity of being donged on the head with a gently lobbed football, and watched further as those nearby turned and raised their fists to defend the honour of theirviolated man, Michael Jennings runs, jumps, and launches an over the top haymaker which sort-of connects, but is so ridiculously melodramatic that the refs are smirking as they point him at the sin bin.
Now Queensland have the numbers and a beautiful back-line move sends Tate down the right. He’s half a stride from scoring, but Jarryd Hayne bumps him into the corner post. Minutes later, quick hands to the left find Slater, whose even quicker hands send Darius Boyd on his way. Over! Slater has been quiet but has worked his way into the game with a series of runs. But this is the first time he has really challenged the Blues – and he’s successful. Thurston’s slots the goal with his hook foot. Queensland 6-4.
The Queenslanders are making good yards now. The tone has changed and now you feel New South Wales are vulnerable. Fifteen out and it’s, in 1970s terms, “backs ball”. Sam Thaiday is in the wrong spot and JT almost taps him on the shoulder to get him to move to be a flat decoy. Thaiday, having found the right place, plays his role by doing nothing, and a scintillating passing sequence finishes with Boyd who again sprints for the corner. Over! Quality stuff. Thurston again kicks the difficult conversion and Queensland lead 12-4 at half-time.
Jennings wishes he were back in the Penrith Reserve Grade.
“How far Queensland?” they whisper around the Docklands.
I have hardly noticed Todd Carney. Farrah seems to be in everything and the skipper has led from the front.
After the break New South Wales look the better side. Slater, who is not having his best game, misses a high ball by one-and-a-half cubits (Is it the roof?) and Jennings snaffles the crumbs to go over. Carney converts and it’s 12-10.
This is a surprise to many. Now pressure is a factor.
Queensland look flakey at times and it takes the wise head of Brent Tate to make some darting yards. The Maroons attack up the middle with some nice inside balls.
But really it’s the Blues who retain the authority. Strangely they take a penalty shot to level the scores when they have the momentum, and Carney misses anyway.
They still have field position but they lack penetration as they get near the Maroon’s line. They keep opting for the high ball, partly because it has worked. Tate takes a beaut mark to hold the Blues out again.
A couple of New South Wales errors and some very good kick-chases (one where Cronk makes a crazy kamikaze tackle in front of the posts) put Queensland on the attack. They pin New South down and there is a telling moment when Uate, returning a kick, is absolutely hammered by Nate Myles and Cam Smith. Uate is shaken. He is slow to his feet and the Queensland skipper stands over him while behind him they salivate. Crouched. Ready to take the advantage.
Thurston, who has looked dangerous all night, moves the ball about, and the Queenslanders have the Blues under pressure. A high ball is batted back by Slater, to Inglis who, to the naked eye, goes over for a simple try. However the replay shows he has lost the ball initially and then pressed it. But hang on, word spreads across the terrace, that it has been kicked out. Played at by ? The this-is-a-try camp is bullish. And the longer it goes the more chance it is. The deliberations take minutes nutil finally the try is awarded.
Thurston converts, and that’s the ball game.
I am quietly pleased. It has been a good game without ever reaching great heights – sort of the Mt Gravatt of Origin fixtures.
But with the right result.
On the Epping train, through Richmond and Collingwood, I am pensive. I read a little of Ron Powers’ Mark Twain biography. I am sure Twain would have loved Origin. He’d have made a lot of it. Of the carnivale. Of the two tribes. Of combat. Of what it means to live north of the Tweed.
I wish we had his observations.
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