By midday a crowd of thousands had formed at Southbank, on the edge of the Brisbane River, for the inaugural Maroon Festival. Fierce young men with neck tattoos and wraparound sunglasses. Blonde women in white skirts or shorts. Murris in loud football jerseys sponsored by Deadly Choices. Elderly couples with lanyards and Sunday Mail show-bags. One man dressed in North Queensland Cowboys shorts, a Queensland jumper and a broad bushman’s hat. A Kiwi woman sported a maroon t-shirt with a gold rather than silver fern, emblazoned with the slogan MarooNZ. As proud parents snapped photos, three young children stood in front of an inflatable State of Origin gladiator and yelled, “Go Queensland!”
When the players arrived by CityCat in the afternoon, a large congregation gathered eagerly to welcome them on to the main stage. Throughout the day the fans had listened to Gene Miles, Queensland’s chairman of selectors, explain why Billy Slater was left out of the squad for Game I; and to the King, Wally Lewis, lead the “Queens-lan-der!” cry.
“The great thing about you wonderful people who have given us such sensational support was if we got beat in the game, you’d go home disappointed but you wouldn’t abuse us,” Lewis told the rapturous audience. “You wouldn’t feel embarrassed about us, and you’d turn up the next game. You’d show that loyalty, and loyalty is the backbone of what has created success for Queensland State of Origin.”
After a sensational performance by NSW in Game I four days later, in which the Blues outclassed Queensland in every aspect of the match to win 28—4 in Brisbane, the Maroons’ decade of dominance in State of Origin appears to be coming to an end.
Still, State of Origin in Queensland seemed to rise to a new level in 2017, breaking the confines of rugby league and cementing its position as the defining image of the state. This year there is a dedicated television show on Fox Sports called Queenslanders Only, complete with slogans to “Make League Great Again” and for a “QUEXIT”. Until it was postponed in May, tickets were selling for a Queensland-themed musical titled Home Ground, produced by one of Queensland’s best-known writers, Hugh Lunn. In Brisbane, football matches and boxing bouts have recently been promoted with the symbolism and the colours of Origin. The federal member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, even issued a press release about who should play fullback in Origin I.
And then of course there was the Maroon Festival, the four day “celebration of all things Queensland”, operated by the QRL and with the imprimatur of the state government.
“I don’t think there’s anything in Queensland that is a common talking point, not even politics, as much as State of Origin,” Katter told Guardian Australia. “It raises tremendous passions.”
Tom Cranitch, who was at the first State of Origin game at the old Lang Park in 1980, believes the Maroons captured the spirit of a new Queensland. Cranitch, 48, grew up in a working class Catholic family and supported Brothers in the now-defunct Brisbane Rugby League competition. As old BRL loyalties gave way to the Brisbane Broncos in the early 1990s, Cranitch almost walked away from the game entirely.
“Brothers was my team, which no longer exists,” he said. “I can’t support anybody. Apart from Origin, I never watched a game of rugby league from about 1989 to 1998. I just couldn’t bring myself to watch footy. Brothers were the love of my life.
“Origin was the sole connection. I can’t remember not being passionate about it. Origin is so much bigger than everything else that’s going on. This is where the cliche is a reality — it actually does mean something to a whole lot of people… To me it means a connection.”
It seems almost sacrilegious to say it now, but Queensland’s obsession with State of Origin was far from pre-ordained. In the 1970s, it was the rugby union team that was referred to as “the mighty Maroons”, while Queensland-based football and basketball teams were ahead of rugby league in joining their respective national competitions. An annual exodus of Queensland rugby league players, enticed by pokie-rich clubs in Sydney, had weakened the local game and the representative team had not won an interstate series since 1960.
A streak of Queensland exceptionalism has existed since the boundaries were first drawn, and losing to NSW in rugby league – particularly under the old residential selection policies which allowed Blues sides to field three or four expatriate Queenslanders – fed into a notion that southerners were growing fat off Queensland’s toil. This was a time when the former premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was talking about secession; and Thomas Aikens, the former member for Townsville South and rugby league footballer, remarked: “If Queensland was a separate country it would be the wealthiest in the world. We wouldn’t have to shovel most of what we produce into the gaping maws and grasping claws of the people in Sydney and Melbourne.”
Moreover, Kerry Boustead, a board member of the North Queensland Cowboys, remembers there was also an internal divide in Queensland between north and south, city and country. As it was in the 1970s, Queensland is still the only mainland state in which the majority of the population lives outside the capital city. And in a state that covers nearly 2 million square kilometres – an area seven times larger than the United Kingdom – distance was a persistent problem. Distance, wrote historian Raymond Evans in A History of Queensland, “dissipated common cause or unity of purpose”.
Growing up in Innisfail, Boustead and his fellow North Queenslanders were far more likely to watch a televised game from Sydney than from Brisbane. Boustead’s favourite player was Bob Fulton, who played for Manly and Easts in NSW, and his primary goal was to represent his town in North Queensland’s Foley Shield competition. The BRL competition was simply an irrelevance to many people outside Brisbane. “Up in North Queensland back then, we were very focused on the Foley Shield,” said Boustead.
The introduction of State of Origin, as well as some shrewd reforms by the QRL in the early 1980s, helped to propagate a sense of unity in Queensland. In the first Origin game in 1980, players were selected for their home state, not the state in which they lived. The timing could not have been more perfect. Seven Sydney-based players, including Arthur Beetson and Boustead, pulled on a maroon jumper and joined a new generation of Queenslanders that included Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga and Chris Close. The players hailed from Brisbane, Innisfail, Rockhampton, Townsville, Roma, Bundaberg, Cunnamulla, Ipswich and Toowoomba.
In this regard, those early Origin sides surfed the crest of a great wave of Queensland parochialism in the 1980s, and the following sides have arguably been riding it ever since. This year there are Maroons from Townsville, Cairns, Biloela, Mackay, Hughenden and even the Northern Territory.
“I thought it [State of Origin] was a one-off,” said Boustead, who played for both NSW and Queensland in the 1980 series. “By the third year and fourth year, we knew it was a real thing. We were happy and then you had it in your mind that it was good to come back and play for Queensland.”
Away from the bright lights of Origin footy, while the NSW competition remained wedded to the powerful leagues clubs in the densely-populated suburbs of Sydney, by 1982 the QRL had launched a state-wide club competition that comprised eight Brisbane clubs and six regional sides.
In the first two seasons of the Winfield State League, the QRL actively spread the gospel by taking games to more than 20 different towns and cities across Queensland. In one match held in Mount Isa in 1982, the crowd was so big – and so enthusiastic – that a makeshift beer stall under a poinciana tree reportedly made $4,000 in one afternoon. In 1983, when Brisbane Norths played Central Queensland Capras in Dysart, more than half of the town’s total population turned up to watch. By 1991, North Queensland were the first regional side to win the State League. Boustead was the coach of that team, and later became the first chief executive of the North Queensland Cowboys in the expanded NSW competition.
These days, Queensland’s InTrust Super Cup is one of the most geographically diverse sporting competitions in the world, stretching from Tweed Heads in the south all the way up the east coast and across the Arafura Sea to Papua New Guinea.
Bob Katter has been involved in football in Cloncurry since he was a child, and is the pre-eminent advocate for North Queensland statehood – complete with its own separate State of Origin side. Still, he cheered for Queensland on the terraces at Lang Park in the first game in 1980 and believes “nothing comes even remotely close” to unifying Queenslanders like the Maroons.
“When anyone calls me a Queenslander I always correct them and say, ‘I’m a North Queenslander’,“ he said. “Having said that, let there be no doubt that I’ve had heart attacks trying to bring the Queensland side home.”
Tony Currie, a veteran of 15 State of Origin matches, former host of the Barefoot Rugby League show on NITV and founder of the Murri Carnival, believes Queensland’s commitment to decentralisation has been a major reason why the Maroons have fielded so many quality Indigenous players over the years. “The secret to it is country rugby league – full of blackfellas,” said Currie.
For more than a decade, while NSW sides overlooked Indigenous talent such as Nathan Blacklock, David Peachey, Preston Campbell and Anthony Mundine, Indigenous players such as Johnathan Thurston, Justin Hodges, Matty Bowen, Carl Webb, Sam Thaiday, Scott Prince, Willie Tonga and even the NSW-born Greg Inglis were the backbone of Queensland’s success. In 2015, when I asked Blacklock – who played for Australia but never for NSW – why he never got picked for his state, he said, “I think I would have had a better chance playing for Queensland in State of Origin”.
“If you would have taken Blacklock, Mundine, Peachey and thrown them into Queensland they would have had long and illustrious careers in Queensland, which would have translated to Australian Test caps,” said Currie.
“We were always coming together for a common cause, a bit like the [New Zealand] All Blacks, and that was to play for Queensland. We know we had a lot of players coming from country areas, we knew what it meant to the country, we knew what it meant to be playing for the State of Queensland. In NSW it’s the State of Sydney.”
Eleven years ago, before Game III of the 2006 series, Cranitch was uncertain for the future of State of Origin. The Super League war was not long in the memory, and the subsequent “erosion of tribalism”, as he put it, forewarned a possible end to rugby league’s greatest spectacle.
“Despite my grim concerns for the future of Origin,” he wrote in an article published by Eureka Street, “I will be there in the throng of supporters with my eight year-old son, cheering fervently for a Queensland victory and trying mightily to instil in his young mind the passion I felt three decades earlier. However, unless tribalism is revitalised in rugby league, I can’t see how his generation will persist with the concept.”
Queensland won that match in dramatic fashion and for the next eight years the Maroons didn’t lose a single series. It is unlikely that “the streak”, as it came to be known, will ever be matched.
Cranitch is happy to report that his son, Dan – now 19 – is as crazy about Queensland as he is. His six children support three different rugby league clubs – Canterbury, South Sydney and St George-Illawarra – and he mourns a team that no longer exists, but Queensland unifies the family.
Perhaps times are changing in NSW, too. In Game I, the Blues were superbly led by a country boy, Boyd Cordner, and fielded a record five Indigenous players. Two of them – Andrew Fifita and Nathan Peats – were standout performers.
Yet for as long as the structural imbalance in the NRL continues – 10 of the 16 clubs come from NSW, while Queensland has just three sides – Queenslanders are likely to own the narrative arc of State of Origin. The formula once described by journalist Adrian McGregor – “NSW proudly defends its traditional status as senior state, Queensland challenges with an underdog, chip-on-the-shoulder resentment” – remains unchanged.
And for that reason, no other sporting event will ever be able to galvanise and reflect Queensland like Origin. It has become something of a secular religion, an annual event that even non-rugby league followers pay heed to. The premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, has already promised to continue funding the Maroon Festival next year. And even if the Maroons can’t level the series in Game II on Wednesday night, Cranitch is sure that history, not success, defines what it means to be a Queenslander.
“It genuinely comes out of history, both from a football perspective and from a socio-economic perspective,” said Cranitch. “Carved out of NSW, at the arse-end of the world for a long time, decentralised, having to cope on your own, being ignored when we should have been given prominence at various stages, not being considered as having any smarts about us.
“It’s deeply rooted in all of that, whether you’re in the arts, whether you’re in the football code itself, or whether you’re an everyday Queenslander, it’s being treated like a bunch of hicks and yokels and that feeling of second-class-ness. That’s where it comes from.”