Almanac Rugby League: 40 Years of State of Origin



When a particular rugby league match took place at Brisbane’s Lang Park on the night of 8 July 1980, there was every chance that it would prove to be little more than a novelty game whose concept would fade quickly into obscurity.


Well, here we are, 40 years later, still talking about what has become a sporting phenomenon. Four decades have passed since Arthur Beetson led Queensland to a memorable 20-10 victory over NSW in the inaugural State of Origin rugby league contest.


More often than not, interstate rugby league was predictably one-sided in the 1960s and 1970s. NSW simply had superior playing stocks, often bolstered by the inclusion of expatriate Queenslanders as players were selected on a state-of-residence basis. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that a number of northerners were lured south due to NSW-based clubs being cashed up by poker machine revenue at a time when pokies were illegal in Queensland.


It should be noted that the Australian football code trialled a State of Origin match in 1977, with Western Australia beating the state of Australian football’s heartland, Victoria. Yet the Australian football State of Origin concept did not last, despite various formats and teams taking part at different stages in the 1980s and 1990s. In any case, the trialling of the concept in 1977 made a huge impact on rugby league which took a leaf out of the then VFL’s book.


There were several influential rugby league figures in 1980, including Ron McAuliffe, Kevin Humphreys and Dick ‘Tosser’ Turner. The State of Origin concept was discussed among the Sydney clubs and it was agreed, reluctantly in some cases, that two contests would be played on the traditional state-of-residence basis with a subsequent fixture to be played on a State of Origin basis if one team won both contests in the traditional format.


NSW victories to the tune of 35-3 and 17-7 ensured a State of Origin match would take place. Bob Fulton, who was named as one of the four original Immortals of rugby league the following year, wrote in the Daily Mirror, “Rugby league’s nonevent of the century will be staged in Brisbane…a totally useless State of Origin clash…As far as I’m concerned it’s strictly a nonevent and will achieve absolutely nothing.” It was also reported that someone rang The Australian to ask about the arrival of an American team, with the caller referring to ‘the State of Oregon match in Brisbane’.


Even fanatical Queensland rugby league identity Barry Muir, who coined the term ‘cockroach’ to express Queensland’s disdain for NSW, was among the sceptics. Speaking of Arthur Beetson and Rod Reddy, Muir told The Courier-Mail, “They went to Sydney for the money and have done nothing to earn a Maroon jersey. Let them stay in Sydney and let real Queenslanders line up against New South Wales again.”


Beetson, who became Queensland’s inaugural State of Origin captain, had played for NSW from 1966 to 1977 and captained his country. His influence on State of Origin turned out to be something extra special. Queensland’s inaugural State of Origin hooker, John Lang, who played for both states and for his country in 1980, told Rugby League Week magazine, “I think Arthur had the biggest impact on that match, even before it kicked off. His genuine excitement to be playing for Queensland at 35, after coming up to Brisbane countless times in a Blues jersey, was incredible. If Arthur had been blasé about Origin it would’ve put a dampener over the whole thing.”


Beetson’s encounters with Parramatta team-mates Steve Edge and Michael Cronin in the first State of Origin match ensured the players would take it seriously against their club colleagues. The whole ‘state against state, mate against mate’ catchphrase was born. Beetson treated Edge roughly in the scrums and struck Cronin high with a loose arm. The hit on Cronin became ridiculously exaggerated in the telling but, in any event, the passion and fervour exuded by the Maroons was something that had arguably never been seen before. The Blues were far from disgraced but seemingly they were out-enthused as the Maroons were bolstered by their expatriates and brilliantly led by one of their favourite sons for the first time. Towards the end of the game, the crowd of 33,210 was in full voice amid chants of “Artie, Artie, Artie.”


For the record, Queensland won that inaugural match 20-10 after both teams scored two tries while Mal Meninga landed seven goals from as many attempts on his 20th birthday.


With Australia dominating the international rugby league landscape, State of Origin generated further appeal as it effectively pitted the best against the best, and overtook the international stage as rugby league’s jewel in the crown.


The 1980 format reappeared in 1981 with two state-of-residence matches scheduled with an Origin fixture to follow if one team won both state-of-residence contests. Two NSW wins, followed by a Queensland State of Origin win, were again just what was needed to give the State of Origin rugby league concept its launching pad. The state-of-residence concept was dropped completely and the State of Origin format was expanded to a three-match series in 1982. And as they say, the rest is history. *


The COVID-19 catastrophe has forced the postponement of this year’s Origin series from its usual June-July timeframe to November, with only one week, rather than two or three week, separating each match.


Rugby league’s State of Origin contests have generated ample interest overseas as well as in Australian states other than NSW and Queensland, while venues have included Melbourne and Perth in addition to the traditional venues of Brisbane and Sydney.


There are countless unknowns in the world of rugby league. How different would rugby league have been if poker machines had been legal in Queensland in the 1960s and 1970s? Who’s to know what might have been had NSW not won both state-of-residence matches in 1980 and 1981, or if NSW had won the one-off Origin match in either year. There are no answers to these questions, only opinions and speculation.


What I do know is this: State of Origin rugby league is a proven sporting phenomenon, making a mockery of claims that it would never work. However, if a few things panned out slightly differently back in 1980, then the concept would surely never have worked. Such are the unpredictable vicissitudes that forever change the course of history.



* To mark the 40th anniversary of State of Origin, two books have been released in recent weeks to commemorate the milestone. They are Liam Hauser’s State of Origin: 40 Years (Sydney: Gelding Street Press, 2020) and Martin Lenehan’s 40 Years of State of Origin (Sydney: Bauer Books Media, 2020)


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Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Liam Hauser

A Queenslander through and through, Liam went out of his comfort zone as he had a thoroughly worthwhile time in Tumut and Gundagai from 2008 to 2016 before enjoying a year in Gunnedah. His strongest sporting interests are State of Origin, Sheffield Shield, Test cricket and the NRL. His sporting CV doesn’t have many highlights, although he once top-scored in a warehouse cricket match with 54 not out at number 10, and shared in an unbroken last wicket stand of 83 with the number 11 who scored an undefeated 52. Liam has written books including State of Origin 40 Years, A Century of Cricket Tests, A History of Test Cricket, The Immortals of Australian Cricket, The Immortals of Australian Rugby League, and The Great Grand Finals: Rugby League's Greatest Contests. Also a huge fan of Electric Light Orchestra.


  1. Who could have known back then what a phenomenon was about to be unleashed? The rip roaring days of the 80s and 90s may be long gone, but the game evolves and new facets reveal themselves over time. Origin is still the pinnacle of the code and looks like being so for some time to come.

  2. Thanks for your piece Liam.

    It was a classic night.

    I was working in a timber yard on the Gold Coast – it was uni holidays. I rang Dick Tobiano who was also on the Coast to talk about whether it was worth the trip to Brisbane. We decided to check it out so we whizzed up in his 323. And, of course, it turned into a brilliant night. AS soon as the players ran out you could sense the immense feeling (and hope) in the crowd.

    You are right about Artie. The crowd loved him. Adored him. His leadership was enormous. He was the elder statesman. I love, looking back on it now, how he linked that older generation of Queensland rugby league with the emerging generation of Mal’s age. Artie was a 1960s and 70s footballer, playing in 1980. He was a legend. Without needing an organisation to confer that upon him.

    The Origin concept needed a strong second year – which it got. With the come-from-behind win at Lang Park being one of the best sporting contests I’ve ever seen.

    Origin became a ‘must-attend’ for quite a few of us at Union College. I didn’t miss a match 1980-84. The crew I went with still get together for all Origins – without fail. I ring them at half time. Ritual and tradition.

    There is no doubt that Origin embodies something that touches whatever it is that’s in Queenlanders. Whatever Queensland-ness is. I can’t speak for the Cockroaches.

    The matches played in Melbourne have, strangely, been flops when compared to some of the drama (especially at Suncorp/Lang Park). Defies the odds really.

  3. Adam Muyt says

    Us Cockroaches..well, it’s only a game to us ;)

  4. Greg Mallory says

    A great story

  5. Matt O'HANLON says

    I was in Year 12 and the image of Arthur running on is etched in my memory. For all long suffering Queensland supporters this was an iconic moment. Excellent read Liam and bring on chapter 40!

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