1985-1989: Blues Stop the Bus

As the Maroons began to build a dynasty for the first time since the 1920s, the task ahead of the New South Welshmen was not taken lightly. Led by new coach Terry Fearnley and captain Steve Mortimer, who had played most games since 1982, the series represented a changing of the guard – and Mortimer's leadership would go down in Origin folklore as pivotal to the ethos of NSW.

As the Blues' bus travelled towards Lang Park ahead of the opening game, they experienced unrelenting hostility from the thousands of Queensland supporters outside. It only served to fuel the fire for the visitors.

I stood up and said: 'Stop this bus!'

Steve MortimerSydney Morning Herald, 27 April 2010

''It wasn't a premeditated thing,'' Mortimer told the Sydney Morning Herald. ''We were driving down Caxton Street and all the Queenslanders were drinking and partying and carrying on.

"Benny Elias was on his debut that year, this cocky little character, and I was watching him look out the window in awe. I was a bit older than Benny and Steve Roach and a few of the blokes and I stood up and said: 'Stop this bus!'

"We sat there and I told the blokes we were there for one and only one thing that year. To win.''

In an incredible display, Mortimer's Blues won 18-2 thanks in part to some impressive newcomers. Of these was former Queensland rugby union representative Michael O'Connor, who sensationally scored all of the Blues' 18 points to give send his state towards Origin victory.

Despite Game Two being played at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the task supposedly did not get easier for NSW; it was to be refereed by Barry Gomersall, a Queenslander often accused of bias whom they had never won under. For the first time since Origin's inception, however, the NSW team remained unchanged and they continued their winning their ways with a 21-14 victory. The image of the triumphant Mortimer falling to the SCG turf is one that will help define the Blues forever.

Steve Mortimer during (left) and after Game Two of the 1985 series (middle), and NSW celebrate Ben Elias's try in the first half (right).
Steve Mortimer during (left) and after Game Two of the 1985 series (middle), and NSW celebrate Ben Elias's try in the first half (right).

Mortimer immediately retired from representative Rugby League and Queensland would win the 'dead-rubber' finale, but the New South Welshman would follow it up with another historic victory a year later. New Blues coach Ron Willey took on Maroons counterpart Wayne Bennett as NSW won 3-0, the first whitewash ever.

The Blues' winning run continued in Origin I, 1987, which was sealed by a freakish Mark McGaw try which had to be seen to be believed. Queensland would respond with two more narrow victories, before a one-off match staged in California, USA – to date the only Origin to be played overseas – resulted in a win to 30-18 NSW. It has since been ruled to sit outside of the series itself, however, and the Maroons retained the shield.

The Wayne Pearce-led Blues celebrate a win in Origin I, 1987.
The Wayne Pearce-led Blues celebrate a win in Origin I, 1987.

The 1988 season saw significant change in Rugby League; the newly-built Sydney Football Stadium (now Allianz Stadium) replaced the SCG as the state's main Rugby League venue, while the NSWRL competition was expanded to include two teams from north of the Tweed River, the Gold Coast-Tweed Giants and Brisbane Broncos. Despite Sydney hosting two of the three Origin encounters for the first time, the Maroons achieved their first whitewash with three convincing wins, a trend which continued for the three matches played in 1989.

At the end of the decade, NSW had lost eight Origin matches in a row (excluding the 1987 California exhibition match) and their mid-80s supremacy seemed a distant memory. One of the great golden eras, however, was about to follow.

Paul Sironen was one of 15 New South Welshmen to make their debut in the 1989 series, beginning a 14-game Origin career for the Balmain second-rower.
Paul Sironen was one of 15 New South Welshmen to make their debut in the 1989 series, beginning a 14-game Origin career for the Balmain second-rower.