1998-2002: Luck of the Draw
The National Rugby League's formation as the game's governing body in Australia ensured that all players were available for Origin selection in 1998 – and the Maroons were the apparent beneficiaries. Broncos players Allan Langer and Shane Webcke, previously aligned to the Super League, were judged Best on Ground in Queensland’s Game One and Game Three victories, while Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett marked a successful return to Origin coaching with the 2-1 win.
All players were back on board and the rivalry between the states seemed to be evenly-poised once again – a feeling which would be confirmed with an unprecedented result the following year.
The 1999 series brought significant changes for both sides on and off the field. Two new coaches, Wayne Pearce and Mark Murray, replaced Tommy Raudonikis and Wayne Bennett for their respective states, while a host of Origin stars retired from representative Rugby League: Paul Harragon, Andrew Ettingshausen and Dean Pay for NSW, Allan Langer, Steve Renouf and Gary Larson for Queensland. In addition, the final series of the 20th century would see the Blues debut a brand new home ground: Stadium Australia (now ANZ Stadium), purpose-built for the Sydney 2000 Olympics with a capacity of 100,000.
Game One of the 1999 series saw NSW suffer the rare outcome of scoring the only try in the game, but still losing to their rivals by a single point. Mat Rogers kicked four goals and a field goal to seal the win at Suncorp Stadium.
The second match of the series was significant not only for its status as the first Origin played at Stadium Australia – and despite heavy rainfall in Sydney, 88,336 people broke the crowd record for State of Origin football – but also for the birth of the Blatchys Blues. The small supporter group in bright blue shirts and wigs has since grown to become a major asset for the Blues and they had immediate success, willing the home side on to a 12-8 victory.
The decider would go down in history as the first draw in State of Origin, with the previous year’s result meaning Queensland retained the shield at the turn of the new millennium.
An injury to Brad Fittler meant Laurie Daley was recalled as Blues captain, with the 23-time NSW representative desperate to go out a winner. While a 72nd-minute try to Matt Geyer allowed the New South Welshmen to equalise, the Queenslanders knew that only a draw was necessary, playing conservatively and narrowly seeing off their opposition's chances for a 10-all stalemate.
If the 1999 series had the Maroons expecting another tight affair a year later, they were to be disappointed when they found themselves at the wrong end of the most convincing Origin series in history. Despite the representative retirement of Daley and Mark Carroll, the Blues amassed 104 points compared with the Maroons’ 42 over the three games in what was the largest aggregate margin ever.
The series featured several memorable moments; Queensland second-rower Gorden Tallis was famously sent off for calling referee Bill Harrigan a “cheat,” NSW centre Ryan Girdler raked in a record 32 points in a single game as the Blues won the finale 56-16, and the same match saw Bryan Fletcher enter Origin folklore with a hand-grenade celebration that would further demoralise the Queenslanders.
Following the Blues’ dominance in 2000, more significant changes were introduced for 2001, which would reap rewards for the Maroons. Wayne Bennett returned for his third stint at the helm of Queensland, where he would spring a major selection surprise with the recall of Allan Langer, who was almost 35 and had been playing in England. In a further change that season, State of Origin matches were moved to Sunday nights, to be played outside of the regular NRL competition.
After the Maroons reversed the recent trend for an 18-point victory in Game One, the Trent Barrett-led Blues won by the same margin in Game Two, before the third match in Brisbane. Bennett’s controversial decision to call upon the Warrington-based Langer – a practice never repeated in Origin history – proved successful in the decider, with the halfback orchestrating a 40-14 win.
A second drawn series in four years would follow in 2002, with the Blues letting victory slip from their grasp after a convincing 32-4 win in Game One. With Brad Fittler announcing his representative retirement a year previously, Andrew Johns took over the captaincy and earned Man-of-the-Match honours in the series opener.
While Game Two is remembered by some for several in-goal blunders of Maroons debutant Justin Hodges, Queensland still managed to win 26-18 and keep the series alive. Three weeks later, the second and final Origin draw was played out at Stadium Australia, with calls coming for extra time to be introduced to State of Origin. As they did in 1999, Queensland retained the shield from the previous year's triumph.