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On the buses at Caxton Street: 'Everybody hates us' - Michael O'Connor

State of Origin had been going for five years and NSW had only won three games with no series victories. 

As part of a series of first-person pieces by Origin greats, Michael O'Connor reveals what it was like to go into the belly of the beast to attempt to beat Queensland at Lang Park. This article originally appeared in Rugby League Week's Heroes of Origin magazine in 2012.

Michael O'Connor: The Caxton bus

There are a couple of bus rides I'll never forget and they both happened in my debut Origin series.

We flew in from Sydney for game one and on the way to our hotel from Brisbane Airport our captain Steve Mortimer asked the bus driver to pull over. He made this really impassioned speech.

Blues skipper Steve Mortimer in 1985.
Blues skipper Steve Mortimer in 1985. ©NRL Photos

"Listen, now you're in Queensland, you have to understand, boys, everybody hates us," he said.

"When we get to the hotel everybody at reception who checks you in will hate you. The people who clean your rooms will hate you. People who see you in the street will hate you because you're from NSW."

And he looked over at the bus driver and said, "even the guy driving the bus hates you!"

Full Match Replay: Blues v Maroons - Game 2, 1985

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Now, I'm not sure the bus driver did hate us, but it got that point across, we were in enemy territory and it showed us just how significant the game was.

The Blues were yet to win a series and it was like an itch on the back of our necks. NSW laid claim to being the home of rugby league and you didn't have that national perspective then; it was very much still a Sydney suburban competition and a lot of people were starting to feel uncomfortable about Queensland laying claim to being the number one state.

At first with Queensland winning there was a sense of, 'OK, fair enough' but by 1985 it was starting to take on a new perspective in NSW. You'd see letters to the editor in Rugby League Week, fans making excuses that in NSW we don't take it as seriously ...  That started to wear thin and people started to ask the question, 'Well, why can't we beat Queensland?’.

I was very excited about playing my first Origin match. I came over from rugby union in 1983 and it was a real honour to be selected.

They were the pioneering days in many respects and it coincided with NSW really having a strong resolve to make sure they won a series.

I remember that first game I played, and the lead-up, vividly. On that night, the first game of Origin for the year, there was immense anticipation about the whole thing.

Mortimer was a very passionate captain and he was hell-bent on success. That whole build-up was massive.

Eric Grothe, Pat Jarvis and Wayne Pearce congratulate Ben Elias after his try during Origin II at the SCG in 1985.
Eric Grothe, Pat Jarvis and Wayne Pearce congratulate Ben Elias after his try during Origin II at the SCG in 1985. ©NRL Photos

The day of the game took forever. The weather was foul and it turned really ugly on the way up to Lang Park, so the traffic was at a snail's pace.

By the time we got up around Caxton Street our bus was stationary, it was raining and I remember looking out the window and seeing Queensland supporters in their Maroons beanies and them knowing who we were.

They started to rock the bus and they were jumping up and hitting the windows. It was quite an intimidating experience and the fact it was raining added to it. I was very nervous.

It was close to silent on the bus because we were in countdown mode for the game. There was no music, just the sounds of the street outside.

The trip took an inordinate amount of time because of the traffic and rain and we became quite frustrated with it.

Queensland's Mal Meninga keeps opposing centre Chris Mortimer at arm's length.
Queensland's Mal Meninga keeps opposing centre Chris Mortimer at arm's length. ©NRL Photos

We were well prepared and while it was a dour first match we were very disciplined. Defensively we were good and took our points to win 18-2.

I'd done a lot of practice with my goalkicking and during play I just made a point of sticking close to Brett Kenny. It paid off because he set me up with two tries!

Winning the series for the first time with a 21-14 win at the SCG for the first was a big achievement.

Steve Mortimer and the Blues celebrate their first series win in Origin.
Steve Mortimer and the Blues celebrate their first series win in Origin. ©NRL Photos

I really enjoyed my years of Origin and I thought I played better in that than I did generally.

I was playing with the very best - Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Terry Lamb, Eric Grothe. These guys were the highest quality players.

And you were against Mal Meninga, Gene Miles, Wally Lewis - these guys were giants.

It was important for NSW to win a series then and the rivalry lives on today - every year it's game on, and the history grows a little.

I live in Queensland now and there is a real sense of animosity here towards people from NSW around Origin time. People here don't forget that I played for the Blues. And they'll never forgive me.

- as told to Tony Harper