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By Roy Masters

It’s a long established fact the Maroons thrive on the underdog tag, forever dredging up the history of interstate games in the era when Queenslanders playing for Sydney-based clubs were selected in NSW teams which defeated those players still residing in the northern state.

However, the other side of the same coin is now more accurate: the Maroons are very uncomfortable when labelled top dogs.

Since that inaugural State of Origin game in 1980 when Queenslanders playing for the rich poker machine-backed Sydney leagues clubs first became eligible to play for the Maroons, it’s been harder for them to claim underdog status.
This was especially so when they won nine Origin series over ten years with a

Rugby League team arguably the greatest in history. Even then, coach Mal Meninga was desperate to pitch NSW as the evil doers who tried to undermine his team. After the sixth successive Queensland Origin victory, Meninga said, “Queensland once again stands triumphant, their success hiding the filth and rats that continue in the sewers and dark corners.”

This was a reference to the NRL Match Review Committee’s citing of Johnathan Thurston, together with NSW delaying the announcement of its team until an hour before kick off!

Mal also took umbrage at the heinous sin of NSW criticising him for not promoting the game by holding two closed training sessions.

This state of the art chip-on-the-shoulder complex resurrected itself in 2020 when a Sydney journalist labelled their Origin team, “the worst Queensland team in history”. Coach Wayne Bennett fed off this to win an unlikely series.

While their success in Origin, including winning the first game of the 2024 series, has made it harder for them to pitch themselves as underdogs, it has heightened their fear of being labelled top dogs. Or frustration when NSW are portrayed as underdogs.

NSW’s success in Origin at the MCG, winning four of the five games played there has come when   the crowd was on Queensland’s side, making them the favourites.

Maroons hero Thurston once said before an Origin match in Melbourne, “I think Victoria hates NSW as much as Queenslanders.” It’s true. One hundred years after the Australian capital moved from Melbourne to Canberra and the centre of finance switched to Sydney, Victorians still resent the power shifting north. They are also still angry Sydney-based Olympic officials did not support Melbourne’s bid for a second Olympic Games in 1996 because they wanted Sydney as host in 2000.
So, whenever the Blues have played at the MCG - still the sporting capital of Australia - the crowd has backed the Maroons. The only game the Maroons have won there was in 1995 when their Queensland born stars were unavailable because of the Super League war and they pitched themselves as underdogs, despite Queensland collectively having more Origin caps (79) on the field, than NSW (68). Their team of self-described rejects hated their ARL-aligned brothers from NSW more than the fellow Queenslanders who had deserted them for the rich contracts of Super League!

They even staged an all-in brawl. Maroons coach Paul Vautin said, “We felt that they (NSW) thought we were never good enough for them.” It is hard to imagine players like the quiet Rod Wishart, the loyal Greg Florimo and the decent Tim Brasher being big heads.

The so called rock-solid Maroon unity is a myth. Queensland captains have fallen out with Queensland coaches far more than in NSW. However, instead of reading about how Wally Lewis or Gorden Tallis, Kevin Walters or Darren Lockyer have occasionally been off with Wayne Bennett – their second most successful Origin coach – they focus their hatred on the Blues coaches. NSW’s most successful Origin coach, Phil Gould, was a target. The Maroons brains trust would scan every piece of TV footage allegedly showing Gould to be arrogant and splice it all together as motivation. Gus infuriated them, especially when he didn’t talk pre match. It’s hard for them to do it with NSW’s humble current coach, Michael Maguire. So how do they campaign against Madge: resurrect the fact he was the NRL referees coach in 2018 and would therefore have detailed knowledge how to exploit the weaknesses of whoever is the man in the middle six years later.

The Maroons have also shown scant respect to Queenslanders who played prior to 1980. Shortly after Origin began, Queensland players were given a number representing their place in the sequence of players chosen to wear the maroon Origin jumper. In other words, all those Queenslanders who played for the state from the game’s beginning through to 1980 were brushed from history. So why didn’t they earn a number? It’s hard to escape the notion it’s because they were regularly beaten by the Blues. NSW Origin players have two numbers on their jumpers: an Origin one and another representing their place in the sequence of players representing NSW since a Blues team played a Kiwi one in Sydney in 1907.

It’s sometimes said Origin exists only for Queensland to beat NSW. Meninga conceded this himself. After NSW won three successive series and followed with a victory in the first match in 2006 by a field goal, Mal predicted Origin would be dead within a few years because it was more important to Queenslanders. As it transpired, only a last minute try by Thurston at Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium won the Maroons the 2006 decider and ignited their decade of success. And don’t forget that some of the Maroons’ success came via NSW-born players, such as Kempsey’s Greg Inglis, western Sydney’s Israel Folau and Tenterfield’s Billy Moore, all recruited to the Maroons via dubious qualification criteria. They even recruited the Kempsey-raised Wayne Bartrim into their 1995 “unheralded” side which won the series three-nil.

There is a high degree of hypocrisy associated with the Maroons projecting themselves as underdogs, considering they like to book themselves into swanky hotels. The 2006 team stayed at a six star hotel in Melbourne, one of Australia’s few six star ones, while the Blues were housed over near the Casino. When the NSW team arrived at Melbourne airport, their bus driver asked where were the golf clubs? Told that the Blues would hire clubs if time from school visits allowed a golf game, the bus driver mentioned that six Maroons had brought their custom made clubs with them. This was an era when tight NRL monetary controls kept a strict watch on the spending on Origin camps. So how did the Maroons find the extra cash for lavish banquets, without attracting the ire of the NRL bean counters? Their Former Origin Great’s came to the party with money raised from their celebratory dinners.

Yet one of their foremost FOGs, Chris Close, once said, “NSW had an air of arrogance about them. They treated us with disdain.”  Well, Queensland has treated visiting NSW teams like second-class citizens, providing the 1980 team with the worst bus they could find. In years since, the promised police escort to guide the bus to Suncorp Stadium has rarely arrived.

Our leaders have been treated as fools. In the early days of Origin, Queensland boss, Senator Ron McAuliffe tried to convince his NSW opposite, Ken Arthurson, to play at Lang Park with a Queensland referee, Barry “Grasshopper” Gomersall. Arko told McAuliffe it was unacceptable for the Maroons to have both the home game and a home referee, particularly one with a bias to Queensland. McAuliffe then replied in all seriousness, “What about if we play the game in Brisbane and I tell the Grasshopper to be fair dinkum?”

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New South Wales Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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