Almanac Rugby League – Another perspective of Channel 9’s ‘The Greatest…’ series



By the time I had my tenth birthday in late 1992, I had enough birthday money to buy a copy of Bret Harris’ book Winfield State of Origin 1980-1991. Little did I know how much this book would shape the rest of my life.


This book became virtually sacred to me. I found myself going back to it again and again for many years as I became thoroughly absorbed in rugby league’s greatest contests. Eventually, I became a State of Origin author myself with two books published to date and a third to come soon.* I’ve also had two books published about rugby league Grand Finals.# In the past couple of years, I set myself the task of re-watching every State of Origin game in chronological order. I have been intrigued to watch the recent Channel 9 Friday night programs which focused on rugby league, a two-part series on Grand Finals followed by a two-part series on State of Origin.


From the very start, I have to make it clear that I don’t believe in simply adhering to popular opinion or agreeing with something just because it is common or fashionable to do so. I’m a firm believer in forming your own opinion, and not simply falling into the trap of believing what others believe.


In the case of the greatest Grand Finals, I think the voters got it right when they voted for 2015 as the greatest, followed by 1989, 1997 (ARL) and 1991. I wouldn’t have minded if 1989 had edged out 2015 as the best but the bottom line was that these simply had to be the top two. So I was pretty comfortable with that.


But in the case of State of Origin, I knew I’d have some vastly different opinions from voters and those on the panel. In fact, of the so-called Top 10 Origin games analysed on the program, I agree with only 4 of them.




The top 10 Origin games that appeared on the program are listed here. The first three games were voted, in order, as the top three Origin matches ever. Those that are also in my Top 10 are marked with an asterisk.


1989 Game 2*: Queensland hung on to win 16-12 at the SFS after suffering a huge injury toll and playing with 12 men for the last four minutes;


1994 Game 1: Mark Coyne’s miracle last-minute try gave Queensland a 16-12 victory after NSW led 12-4 with barely six minutes remaining;


2019 Game 3*: NSW led 20-8 in the decider before Queensland drew level in the dying minutes, only for James Tedesco to score a last-minute try to steal a 26-20 victory for the Blues.


Then, in no particular order, the remaining Top 10 games based on public voting were:


1991 Game 2*: This match was infamous for the Wally Lewis v Mark Geyer showdown after the half-time whistle. In the last few minutes, Michael O’Connor kicked a stunning, wide-angled conversion in boggy conditions as NSW turned a 12-8 deficit into a 14-12 victory;


2005 Game 1:  NSW turned a 19-0 deficit into a 20-19 lead before a field goal to ‘JT’ sent the match into golden point extra time. An intercept try to Matt Bowen gave Queensland a 24-20 win;


2005 Game 2: A masterclass from Andrew Johns inspired a series-levelling 32-22 victory for NSW);


2006 Game 3: The Blues led 14-4 after many controversial decisions went their way, only for the Maroons to steal a series-winning 16-14 victory after Darren Lockyer swooped on a wayward NSW pass to score near the posts in the last 10 minutes;


2012 Game 3*: Queensland won a tense decider 21-20 after a long-range field goal from Cooper Cronk broke a 20-all deadlock;


2013 Game 3: Queensland led 12-4 in the second half before NSW closed the margin to 12-10 in the final 10 minutes. A streaker prevented Queensland from scoring a winning try, but the Maroons held on to secure their eighth straight series win:


2014 Game 2: NSW finally halted an eight-year losing streak with a 6-4 win on home turf, with Trent Hodkinson scoring a converted try after Queensland led 4-0 for much of the night).


To be perfectly honest, I think the above list is a bit of a joke. It doesn’t include what I consider the three greatest Origin contests – Game 3 of 1987, Game 1 of 1995, and Game 2 of 1985. Even worse, I would consider Game 2 of 2014 to be easily one of the Top 10 Worst Ever Origin matches! It involved so much niggle and wrestle with virtually no quality football. Yes, NSW snapped Queensland’s eight-year winning streak, but the game itself was a complete dud. As for Game 1 of 1994, yes, Mark Coyne’s last-minute winning try was one of the all-time great Origin tries, however, that match was by no means one of the best Origin matches. As for Game 3 of 2006, some of the decisions by the match officials were embarrassing to say the least, so much so that even NSW commentators Ray Warren, Phil Gould and Peter Sterling could not believe it. Brett Hodgson was very unfairly portrayed as a scapegoat for throwing the loose pass that Darren Lockyer intercepted for the winning try. Put bluntly, it would have been a grave injustice had NSW won. The Maroons simply deserved to win after getting a raw deal from the match officials, especially video referee Graeme West. The first two matches of 2005 and the third match of 2013 were great games, but I can think of others that were, in my opinion, even better.


So, to put forward an alternative list, here’s my Top 10 State of Origin clashes over the past 40 years, the first five in order:


Game 3 of 1987: The emergence of Allan Langer in his debut series was a highlight. In a see-sawing first half of the series decider, Dale Shearer landed a penalty goal on half-time to put Queensland ahead 10-8. The second half was scoreless but both teams had their chances. It was fast and furious, real end-to-end, quality football with some heroic defence with points at a premium. Classic Origin football!;


Game 1 of 1995: Well known for Billy Moore’s iconic “Queenslander” shout as the Maroons walked up the tunnel for the start of each half. Starting as 9/1 outsiders, the Maroons recorded a shock 2-0 win after a lone penalty goal in the 31st minute. Like the 1987 decider, there were missed chances at both ends as well as desperate defence in yet another Origin classic;


Game 2 of 1985: NSW clinched its first series win with a 21-14 victory. Queensland overcame a 12-0 deficit to lead 14-12, only for NSW to edge ahead 15-14 before a late Brett Kenny try sealed the result. Blues skipper Steve Mortimer sank to his knees and kissed the hallowed SCG turf;


Game 2 of 1989: See above;


Game 3 of 2019: See above.


The remaining five matches are in no particular order:


Game 1 of 1987: Queensland fought back from a 16-6 deficit to draw level at 16-all before a well-conceived but somewhat fortuitous try to Mark McGaw gave NSW a last-gasp 20-16 victory;


Game 2 of 1991: See above;


Game 3 of 1991: Wally Lewis’ farewell. In a back-and-forth game, NSW scored first before 8 points to Queensland were followed by 8 to NSW. Following a try to Dale Shearer, Mal Meninga landed the sole goal of the night to set up a 14-12 win for Queensland. Pure idolatry followed!;


Game 1 of 1998: The first Origin game following the inauguration of the NRL proved to be a classic. Queensland led 6-0 before 13 unanswered points to NSW were followed by 12 points to Queensland, then 10 to NSW. Martin Lang’s chase on Rod Wishart was memorable. Slick handling set up a last-minute try to Tonie Carroll before Darren Lockyer converted after the full-time siren to secure Queensland’s 24-23 triumph;


Game 3 of 2012: See above.


(One last thing about Origin clashes. I find it irritating how much Phil Gould harps on about Billy Slater being “offside” when he scored his memorable chip-and-chase try in Game 2 of 2004. By comparison, Andrew Johns constantly gets praised for his performance in Game 2 of 2005 when the first try came from one of his kicks which bounced off an upright and worked favourably for Anthony Minichiello. It’s quite obvious from the video that Minichiello was much more blatantly offside than Slater had been the previous year yet, somehow, that is always overlooked. I sometimes feel like I’m the only one who noticed it. Why can’t Gus, Sterlo, Freddie and ‘Rabbits’ Warren, the so-called “experts”, notice this? I guess, like a lot of people, they tend to only notice something controversial when it goes against their preferred team.)


In the two-part series focusing on State of Origin’s greatest moments, it was interesting to see Phil Gould rate his top 5 NSW players before Paul Vautin rated his top 5 Queensland players.


Gould rated Laurie Daley as the best ever NSW Origin player, followed by Brad Fittler, Glenn Lazarus, Andrew Johns and Steve Mortimer. By comparison, my list has Andrew Johns at the top followed by Laurie Daley, Brett Kenny, Brad Fittler and Michael O’Connor.


To explain some of my selections, let’s start with NSW. I think Gould’s selections may be somewhat swayed by the fact that Daley, Fittler and Lazarus played under his own coaching during four series wins from 1992 to 1996. Fittler also farewelled Origin football successfully alongside Gould in 2004. The duo also shared success at both Penrith and the Roosters. Johns, meanwhile, played in four Origin series under Gould’s coaching – 1995, 1996, 2002 and 2003 – which featured two series wins for NSW, a loss and a draw.


As for Brett Kenny’s inclusion in my top five NSW players, it’s worth noting that NSW won 8 of 12 matches when Kenny opposed Wally Lewis at five-eighth. Kenny’s influence was never better exemplified than in 1986 as NSW achieved the first ever Origin series clean-sweep, although the margins ranged from just two to six points. If any player could be singled out as the difference between the two teams in that year, it was Kenny. With dynamic footwork and the ability to swerve, Kenny peeled through gaps that seemingly didn’t exist. He was an all-round classy player. Michael O’Connor was another great all-round player possessing supreme athleticism. In some Origin matches, he looked dangerous nearly every time he had the ball, and looked capable of producing something.


In the case of Daley, I must make mention of his outstanding solo try in Game 3 of 1994. It was absolutely scintillating! ‘Lozza’ bamboozled the Queensland defence, dodging five defenders and leaving most of them on the ground as he crossed the tryline. Wally Lewis’ try in Game 2 of 1989 and Billy Slater’s try in Game 2 of 2004 are often remembered as great solo Origin tries, but Daley’s is right up there too. In fact, Daley’s effort was even more of a ‘solo’ try than the others, bearing in mind that Trevor Gillmeister’s thumping tackle forced a NSW knock-on in the lead-up to Wally’s try, before Darren Lockyer grubber-kicked in the lead-up to Slater’s try.


Vautin listed his top 5 Queensland State of Origin players based one very narrow criterion – those with whom Vautin played (i.e. from 1982 to Game 1 of 1990). He had Wally Lewis at the top of his list followed by Allan Langer, Trevor Gillmeister, Gene Miles and Greg Dowling. My list of all-time best Queensland Origin players over the full 1980-2019 period has Cameron Smith in first place followed by Johnathan Thurston, Wally Lewis, Allan Langer and Darren Lockyer.


I don’t care if it sounds like heresy but I simply don’t agree with all that has been said, and often accepted as gospel, about Wally Lewis in Origin football, hence his rating at number 3 rather than top spot. For those who insist that Wally must be in top spot, I insist that they succumb to popular opinion too easily.


Wally’s influence and contributions were immense, yes, but it is simply rubbish to say that he single-handedly won Origin games. It is often forgotten that he had many great players around him. Two other factors must be acknowledged rather than ignored. Firstly, there’s Wally’s aforementioned record against Brett Kenny; the second is that Queensland lost seven of eight games involving Wally at one stage in the 1980s from Game 3 of 1984 to Game 1 of 1987. Wally’s tally of Man-of-the-Match awards is still a record but there were times that I think one of his team-mates would have been an equally worthy recipient. It was also a controversial decision to give Wally the award in Game 2 of 1985 after NSW clinched its maiden series victory.


For all the plaudits that Wally has earned in Origin football, the same should be applied to Cameron Smith, albeit in a different era. Sure, Wally’s influence should not be underestimated when you consider that the Maroons weren’t used to winning until he and Origin football came along. But, by the same token, let’s not forget that before Queensland’s eight straight series wins, the Maroons had won only 3 of the previous 13 series (plus two drawn). Smith actually experienced two series losses before the juggernaut began. Although Smith was often in a great Queensland team throughout his career (as was Wally, don’t forget), Smith matched and even surpassed Wally in numerous facets of Origin football, particularly with regard to longevity and series wins. In Queensland’s success from 2006 to 2017, Smith’s influence and deeds were every bit as good as those achieved by Wally during his Origin career. Were it not for Johnathan Thurston, I’m sure Smith would have overtaken Wally’s tally for Man-of-the-Match awards.


Admittedly, it is very hard to compare players from vastly different eras. Wally could certainly influence and control a match but, for mine, Smith could virtually “govern” a match. I’m not anti-Wally, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t always accept popular opinion, fashionable beliefs and/or sentiments as being gospel. I honestly think that for all the praise Wally earned in Origin football, the same applies to Cameron Smith who deserves at least as much or, in my opinion, more recognition and so deserves top spot.


Something else that Wally and Smith have in common is that both have been resented by fans who don’t support the teams they play(ed) for. Tall poppy syndrome, perhaps? With the passing of time, it appears that many fans’ hatred for Wally has subsided somewhat. Smith has always had his critics, many of whom I think are simply jealous of his success. On that note, I am a Queenslander but not a Melbourne Storm fan. But I’m sure that most of his critics would love him dearly if he played for their favourite team, especially if it was a Sydney club and NSW, while achieving all that he has in his illustrious career.


I’ve also rated Thurston above Wally, partly because of Thurston’s longevity and number of series wins. Thurston appeared a little quicker and more dynamic than Wally while possessing virtually all of Wally’s traits as a playmaker. Like Smith, Thurston was a lynchpin in Queensland’s dynasty from 2006 to 2017, and was often the go-to player. Thurston had a hand in many Queensland tries and he kicked numerous goals and field goals.


Langer won Man-of-the-Match honours in his maiden Origin series in 1987 and in his Origin farewell in 2002. He had some troughs as he didn’t taste a series win between 1991 and 1998, but he was a part of six series wins and a drawn series. Quick, elusive, threatening and able to produce dangerous chip-kicks, grubber kicks and the high ball, Langer could turn a game with a piece of individual brilliance and make opponents look dumbfounded. Lockyer also had some troughs, but he was a key player and a leader in many Queensland victories from 1998 to 2011.


To conclude, it must be remembered that there are no definitive lists; there are only opinions. I’m sure my selections and analyses will provoke some discussion and argument. It is perfectly acceptable to agree to disagree. But I will advise one thing: please don’t succumb too meekly to popular and fashionable sentiments that are seemingly accepted as gospel.


* Liam Hauser, State of Origin 30 Years (Rockpool Publishing, 2010), State of Origin 35 Years (Rockpool Publishing, 2015) and State of Origin 40 Year (Gelding Street Press, 2020), the latter due for release in the coming months.

# Liam Hauser, Rugby League’s Greatest Contests (New Holland, 2017) and Rugby League’s Greatest Contests (New Holland, 2019).


Liam Hauser is also the author of several books on Test cricket, A Century of Cricket Tests (New Holland, 2013), A History of Test Cricket (New Holland, 2016) and The Immortals of Australian Cricket (Gelding Street Press, 2018).


You can find copies of Liam’s ‘Immortals’ books and rugby league Grand Finals  editions in stores such as Dymocks. Or contact the publishers direct.


You can read more of Liam’s Almanac contributions by clicking here.


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. One of the problems with the Channel 9 approach is that they there were rarely any selection criteria provided. Only “Fatty’ Vautin gave his strict parameters. They could have talked about ‘significant games’ instead of ‘the greatest’, which would have resulted in a far different list, I think.

    The Lewis v Smith debate is a challenging one. Both were the most significant player of their eras, even if in different ways. Wally gained his status because of the context of the code at that time. It desperately needed something or someone to change the dynamic of the annual interstate drubbings. The Origin concept and the impact of Lewis provided that X-factor. Origin changed the landscape; Lewis was the personification of the change.

    Smith is undoubtedly the most durable player the code has seen in a long time. But would he have been as good in the days when hookers actually had to contest the ball in scrums, when the game was wilder and more brutal? We’ll never know. But what we do know is that Smith has been the most influential player in the code in the past 20 years (at least), resilient, and seemingly indestructible. In the context of Origin, Smith, as much as anyone, is the face of the Maroon juggernaut that ruled Origin for over a decade because he was there before the streak started, was there throughout it, and was a notable absentee when it ended. Case closed.

    In the end, how bloody lucky have we been to see both of these players – along with a host of the other greats you’ve listed above.


  2. george smith says

    There is more. I think Vautin and company presented the 1986 grand final, which Parramatta won 2 goals to one, as one of the great grand finals.

    Generally the ’86 grand final, along with the 1994 World Cup Final, is regarded as one of the worst major football games in any code. Nostalgia for the last game of Price and Cronin could have blinded the boys to this advertisement for the ballet, or street theatre or any pastime that is not football!

  3. Matt O'Hanlon says

    Thought provoking read. Firstly on GF’s the 2015 Game was outstanding because the ground was full of Queenslanders! I was fortunate enough to be at the game and the attitude of the crowd enhanced the match. Often at the ground there is a negative feeling between the two camps however at this game even the most diehard Broncos supporter would have walked away feeling they had just witnessed one of the greatest games of RL ever played. Credit to the coaches who encouraged open play and in some ways the undoing of Brisbane was when they tried to shut up shop in the last 20. Bennet has never said his instructions were to shut the game down. On Origin I agree with the 1995 series games as often forgotten by the NSW dominated Fox/9 combo. Also for any Queenslander 15 years or older 1980 is indelibly inked in our psyche. Finally why didn’t the self proclaimed greatest origin coach GG take the reigns during Qld’s decade of domination? He knew they had as the late Senator would say “a team that was an act of god!”

  4. Liam Hauser says

    Ian: you make a good point about Cameron Smith’s presence before Queensland’s juggernaut began, as well as during it and being a notable absentee when it ended. After Wally’s retirement from Origin as a player, NSW won three straight series. So far, NSW has won back-to-back in the absence of Smith.

    George: of the Channel 9 crew, Peter Sterling will naturally gravitate to all 4 of Parramatta’s premierships, especially when considering he played in them all. The farewell for Ray Price and Michael Cronin was certainly a major reason why the 1986 decider was singled out for attention. But for some reason, Shane Webcke’s farewell in 2006 often gets forgotten. Fortunately, the voters had the sense to rate plenty of grand finals higher than the 1986 decider.

    Matt: although I’m not a fan of the robotic and formulaic way of rugby league in the past 10 to 15 years, the 2015 grand final was special indeed. It featured my two favourite teams! I would have been happier if the Broncos won, but it must be said that they weren’t unlucky.
    I find it intriguing that the 2015 grand final polled more votes than 1989, considering there was no NSW team involved in the 2015 decider. Maybe the poll results suggested something about the majority of the age group that voted.
    I know that a lot has been said about Brisbane “shutting up shop” in the 2015 grand final, but I reckon other pertinent things get overlooked for some unknown reason (and no, I’m not talking about Ben Hunt’s knock-on at the start of golden point extra time, nor JT’s conversion attempt hitting an upright). The sequence of things in the last 65 seconds (of regulation time) really sticks in my throat! Firstly, Ben Hunt had the ball stripped near halfway. Then in the lead-up to Kyle Feldt’s try, the defence could have stopped Johnathan Thurston but he escaped two would-be tackles. Then, as Michael Morgan delivered his flick-pass while sandwiched, Corey Oates moved in and lost his footing, thus allowing Feldt ample room to run to the tryline when Oates could have blocked Feldt’s path instead. Had Ben Hunt not had the ball stripped, I reckon the Broncos would have kicked into touch one last time, and that might have been enough for the Broncos to close the game out. Therefore, the tactic which later earned ample criticism would have been hailed a success had it worked one last time with a minute left in regulation time. Then if Brisbane’s defence hadn’t faltered with the siren imminent, the Broncos still would have won 16-12 while the Cowboys would still be without a premiership. Then the following year, if Will Chambers had spotted an unmarked Cooper Cronk with 3 minutes left, the Storm would surely have beaten Cronulla which would also still be without a premiership (and perhaps enabled Cronk to win back-to-back premierships with Melbourne, and then back-to-back titles with the Roosters!). And if Balmain had held on for 90 more seconds in 1989 (or if Balmain had taken one more scoring chance in the last 15 minutes), Canberra would have had to wait longer for its first premiership, while Balmain’s last premiership would have been in 1989 rather than 1969. And there would have been no heroics from JT in 2015 or from Steve Jackson in 1989, nor would those grand finals be well remembered. So many what-ifs and if-onlys!
    As for ‘Gus’ Gould not returning as NSW Origin coach at any stage while Queensland embarked on 11 series wins in 12 years, it’s interesting that Gould decided once and for all that he was finished as a coach after guiding NSW to glory in 2004, just shy of his 46th birthday. By contrast, Wayne Bennett is still coaching at the age of 70, having recently coached England and Great Britain (after he was 53 when he last coached in Origin). After Queensland won the 2010 Origin series (5 in a row), Paul Vautin suggested that NSW needed Gould to save the Blues. Typically, Gus replied: “No no no no no.” (Note that the number of times Gould says “no” is always five. Same as in the brilliant Electric Light Orchestra song Don’t Bring Me Down. But I digress).

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