If you were born on the East Coast of Australia, anywhere more northerly than Albury, there’s a chance you’ve embraced the State of Origin concept at some time in your life. An interest in sport helps – but without one there’s little chance you’d be reading this anyway.
Growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney during the early 90s, rugby league took centre stage. The Sydney Swans were a joke team in the AFL and the Western Sydney Wanderers wouldn’t exist for another 20 years. When Origin time rolled around, club preferences were put aside and we all united behind the State.
The early years were spent on the lounge room floor of the family home, watching some of the historic names of the game – Langer, Fittler, and even my personal favourites Brad Mackay, Rod Wishart and the Chief. I was awestruck by the spectacle of a game that both united and divided, and nearly always delivered an exciting match (that NSW typically won).
As the teenage years came around the Origin spectacle remained, but instead of being with the family at home it was time to watch it with mates, indulging in pizza and booze, cracking up while listening to Roy & HGs The Call on the radio.
Then came my 20’s, where much time was spent working in hospitality. Origin nights were quiet in the restaurant, but there was always work to be done, and my investment in the series seemed to correlate to NSWs chances of winning, which grew smaller and smaller each year.
I love Origin, I embrace it when I can – but I had never actually been to a game. Ha! And I call myself a New South Welshman!
All that changed this year.
Now working for the organisation, I was presented with a chance to attend Game One at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium. There was no way I was going to turn it down, and I’m glad I didn’t.
There was so much to look forward to; not just the completion of a rite of passage for any New South Wales-born football fan, but the chance to see a sporting match at a sold-out ANZ, the chance to see the most-skilled football player of our generation – Johnathan Thurston – put the ball on a string and the chance to experience the passion and brutality of State of Origin football from awesome seats not too far from the sideline.
And of course, a New South Wales win (hopefully).
Pre-match entertainment? Shannon Noll and some bloke I’ve never heard of singing ‘We Can’t Be Beaten’ at each other from opposite ends of the stadium with dancers and drummers. It was underwhelming and slipshod, but that’s OK, I’m not here to see that.
Finally the teams emerge to the raucous cheers and jeers of 80,000 people. Twenty minutes ago the stands looked relatively empty but now they’re packed. Perhaps it’s because the seats are practically the same colour as the people draped in blue?
And we’re off.
Billy Slater is denied an early try, having pushed defenders on his way through. I realise that the video referee is far less annoying when you’re at the game and can be distracted by your own conversations as opposed to watching 50,000 replays of the same thing.
Not long after, Cooper Cronk is through to score. It wasn’t an Origin try. It was barely an NRL try, as he stepped through defence so soft you could cut it with your tongue to fall over the line. Despite some early promise from the Blues, you got the impression it could be a long night if they didn’t sort themselves out.
And sort it out they did, as I witnessed one of the greatest tries I’ve ever seen in person. Josh Dugan sprints through after a ball from James Tamou, surrounded by five Queenslanders. He puts a kick off the outside of the boot towards the wing. Being there watching it, I could actually see the shape of the ball, knowing that it was going to come back around. It sits up perfectly for Josh Morris, who takes it easily and slides over to score. It was a moment of brilliance out of nothing, and it was spectacular. The crowd went wild.
Five minutes later and NSW are at the line again. A well-executed play gives Beau Scott the ball, and he runs straight at the three men in front of him, taking them with him as he goes over to score. Suddenly NSW have the lead, the place is pumping and I’m loving it. 10-6 New South Wales at the half.
Queensland were always going to come out of the break hungrier than their opposition, and spent a good while camped down the NSW end. A few errors and strong defence keep them out for a while before another well-executed, but not remarkable, play leads to a Will Chambers try on the sideline, and it’s 10-all. It’s bad news for the Blues, but on a positive note I’ve got a pretty good angle behind Johnathan Thurston as he attempts the conversion, and I can’t wait to see him bend that ball like magic and send it through the sticks.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t. The kick never comes back around. Miss. It remains 10-all.
What follows is about 20 minutes of intense football in the middle of the park. The Maroons hold a slight advantage, but the Dugan-Morris try is in the back of everyone’s mind, reminding us all that NSW could score at any moment.
Come the 70th minute, Queensland are awarded a penalty just inside the halfway line. Johnathan Thurston opts to take a shot at goal. Many in the stadium remember Pat Richards kicking a conversion from 55 metres out just a few weeks before, and have little doubt Thurston could clear 45 from straight in front. Once again, he misses – the ball falling short by 5 metres, collected by the Blues. Trust JT to be having an off night when I finally get the chance to watch him in person. By this stage now-Queensland trainer Allan Langer is a permanent fixture on the pitch, practically coaching the Maroons from just behind the line. He ended up spending more minutes on the field than Origin debutant Michael Morgan – so at least I can say I saw Alfie play Origin too.
Three minutes later and Queensland are on the attack again. Tackle four. Cameron Smith throws the ball to Cooper Cronk, who makes the field goal look like practice instead of the deciding point in an intense contest. 11-10 Queensland, and that’s how it would end.
It was a result that few in the stadium wanted, but it was hard to deny Queensland the victory after a dominant second-half performance.
So what did I think of my first live Origin experience?
It’s a different atmosphere to the crowd I’m typically exposed to (A-League). It could be because the fans don’t have songs, but there’s more to it than that. The passion was certainly there, but it’s a different type. I’ve been to multiple Sydney Derbies at Allianz Stadium and can testify with first-hand experience that 40,000 hate-filled Sydney football (soccer) fans are twice as loud, if not more, than their Rugby League counterparts – but does this make State of Origin worse? No. At Football (soccer) matches, particularly Sydney derbies, there’s an air of pretence in the crowd; many ‘supporters’ are there to be seen as much as they are to actually support a team. There are as many people invested in what’s going on in the stands than what happens on the pitch. Despite there being twice as many people at Origin, it felt like the crowd was considerably more involved in what was happening on that green bit in the middle than which group of fans were louder and were, therefore, better people than their opponents. That’s not to take anything away from a Sydney derby – I recommend Rugby League fans check it out some day.
Is it a better experience? I’m not sure. I suppose it depends on what you’re after. Even when it comes to the round-ball game, I’m far more invested in what’s happening on the pitch than how loud I sing, or where I stand on the issue of flares. To some people that might seem strange – but those people are probably the ones I referred to earlier. Each experience has its pro’s and con’s, but unlike some of the more parochial ‘code-wars’ people in the world, I’m happy for both to co-exist, without having to compete with each other, though I sometimes feel that I’m part of a minority in that opinion.
Did the Blues win? No. Did I get to witness the prowess of Johnathan Thurston first-hand? No. Was it the most enthralling game of Origin football I’ve ever seen? Not by a long shot. But it WAS my first live Origin, it WAS enjoyable, it WAS fun, and it was certainly an experience I’ll never forget.