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Gus' bedtime stories and the art of Origin coaching: Masters

By Roy Masters

The Maroons like to remind NSW fans that in the 43 years State of Origin has been played as a three game series, the Blues have won only one of the last ten deciders and only two of the 13 deciders played in Brisbane: 1994 and 2005.

However, there is another statistic the Maroons prefer to keep secret: whenever the captains of the rival state teams come from the same club, the Blues win.

NSW won three successive series in 1992, 1993 and 1994 when the Blues were led by Laurie Daley and the Maroons by Mal Meninga, both from the Canberra Raiders.

In 2000, the Blues won all three games with Brad Fittler and the Maroons Adrian Lam as the rival skippers, both from the Roosters.

(The 1999 series was drawn, with Fittler and Lam also captains).

In 2024, with the series one all going to a decider in Brisbane, NSW is led by Jake Trbojevic and Queensland by Dale Cherry-Evans, both from the Manly Sea Eagles.

The decider on July 17 at Brisbane’s Suncorp stadium is tailor made for Queensland’s underdog psyche following NSW’s 38-18 win at the MCG on June 26.

However, the Blues can draw inspiration from the 1994 series which is eerily similar to today in that the losses in Sydney came in an unexpected way and the wins in the second game were both at the MCG.

The Blues were in control in Sydney in 1994 right up until the last minute when Queensland’s Mark Coyne scored a miracle try, while the 2024 game was effectively over after NSW centre Joseph Suaalii was sent off in the eighth minute.

After that 1994 match, NSW coach Phil Gould walked into the Sydney Football Stadium dressing room and, in classic Gus fashion, reversed the message of the previous week. Every day of the NSW camp, he had impressed upon the players the importance of winning the first game at home. Now, however, with the players staring at the dressing room floor, he told them he had always secretly thought the second game was more important. “Get your heads up,” he ordered. “Whoever wins the second game, wins the series.”  NSW won the MCG match and then triumphed 27-12 in Brisbane.

Similarly, NSW coach Michael “Madge” Maguire, following the loss in Sydney, insulated his team from the defeat and simultaneously distracted the Maroons with his obscure, cryptic comment about people living in glass houses.

Both Gould and Maguire appreciated from the beginning of their tenures that there is a difference between a NRL club player and an Origin player. Rod Wishart, NSW winger and goalkicker from 1990 to 1997, remembers a young Andrew Johns coming on the scene towards the end of his representative career. “I knew Joey was a good goalkicker but I wanted to keep the job,” he said. “So I told Gus and he said, ‘You always put your hand up to play Origin. You mightn’t be the fastest or the most skilful but you always put your hand up to play Origin.”  He then confirmed Wishart as goalkicker.

Similarly, Madge had no doubts Latrell Mitchell is an Origin player. While the media conjectured that Mitchell was uncommitted, Madge rang the South Sydney fullback and simply said, “When you are ready, just call me.” The 106kg wrecking ball proved him right in NSW’s big win at the MCG.

Thirty years afterwards, Gould’s players can still remember what then team manager, Geoff Carr, calls “Gus’s bed time stories.” Daley says, “He was very good at being able to describe the moment and put it together with words from a film.”

The Jack Nicholson/Tom Cruise film, “A Few Good Men” was released in 1992 and Gus used the speech by Colonel Jessup, played by Nicholson, where he talks about the wall. “Son,” Col Jessup tells a lawyer in the court room drama, “We live in a world that has walls and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it?”

According to Daley, “Gus compared the wall to the defensive line in a rugby league game. How to defend our line. How the game was not made for everyone. He made us feel as if we were in the situation where you face the challenge of defending the wall.”

Carr remembers having a post-game beer with two Queensland players, hooker Steve “Boxhead” Walters and Meninga where they still had the sound in their ears of NSW players rallying each other with the “wall” cry. Carr says, “Boxhead was still asking me at 5am, ‘what’s this wall thing they kept saying?’”

“Gus would tell his stories the night before a game. Sometimes, he would load the players into a bus and go for a drive. There would be no grog, of course. He’d stop the bus at the SFS and it would be in darkness. He’d sit the players in the dressing room and tell them the way the game would be played.

“Then he would line them up and walk out the tunnel. The lights would come on and he’d get the players to take their positions at kick-off in a game. He’d explain how 42,000 people would be there and ask the players to think of them in the stands, including their friends and family, the people who drove them hundreds of kilometres to their junior games.

“He’d say the game is on in exactly 24 hours and ask the players are they ready to win it and invariably there would be a response of yeah!”

Daley remembers the SFS experience.

“Gus did the same thing at Lang Park but we couldn’t get inside the ground. He’d then drop us off in the bus somewhere, get us an ice cream and tell us to walk home. He always had a speech the night before the game, tying everything in to a movie or something. It was always inspirational. There was always a bus ride, always a walk.”

According to Carr, NSW’s big, confrontational prop, Paul “The Chief” Harragon, approached Gus’s bedtime stories with an almost childlike glee. Chris Johns’ 10-game Origin career began in 1989 under Jack Gibson and ended with Gould as coach in the 1994 decider in Brisbane. He says, “Gus was one of the best orators ever. He was up there with (Winston) Churchill. If you want to win a State of Origin series, you get Gus. But it’s only three games a year and there are only so many Churchillian speeches you can listen to.”

Benny Elias, NSW’s long-serving hooker, remembers the stories. “Some he’d make up. He’d get a story out of nothing but it was always believable. They would end with everyone living happily ever after. You’d quietly go to your room in the team hotel afterwards and reflect on what was said, with the words still in your ears as you go to sleep. It’s hard to give the same message to 17 different leaders from different clubs, moulding it all together and putting a bow on it at the end. To make reference to another Tom Cruise movie (Jerry Maguire), Gus ‘had us at hello.’ He made us understand the importance of love of your teammate and sacrifice.”

Elias played 19 times for NSW, winning the Man of the Match award three times. He began his career in the 1985 series and ended it with the 1994 decider under Gould. He was one of 85 former NSW players who attended a function at The Star in Sydney to welcome Madge’s 2024 team. He says, “Madge has been able to do the same thing as Gus in his own special way. When he was at South Sydney, he brought in the ex-Rabbitohs champions, such as Bob McCarthy and Ron Coote into the dressing room, just to stand there and not say anything. He’s doing it now with former NSW players.”

Madge has focused his 2024 campaign on the 1985 series, when the Blues won the Origin trophy for the first time under the leadership of Steve “Turvey” Mortimer. The photo of Mortimer being chaired off by his team mates in that 1985 inaugural Blues victory was blown up large and fixed to the wall of the NSW dressing room at the MCG. The Blues rallying call in 2024 when they need some extra steel in defence is “Turvey,” just as it was “the wall” 30 years ago.

Acknowledgement of Country

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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