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State of Origin – Iconic Series Openers

Ahead of the 2023 State of Origin series opener in Adelaide on Wednesday, revisit the greatest game one encounters in the concept’s four-decade history.

1982 – Blues clinch first Origin win

Following Queensland’s iconic Brisbane boilovers in one-off State of Origin clashes in 1980 and ’81, residency-based interstate matches were cast aside forever in favour of a three-match series. NSW chalked up their maiden Origin win in the first-ever series opener, holding on for a 20-16 victory at Lang Park. The Blues surged to a 17-6 after two tries to Souths winger Ziggy Niszczot and a solo effort from Steve Mortimer. A second-half comeback inspired by rampaging man-of-the-match Mal Meninga cut the deficit to a point, before Penrith’s 20-year-old reserve back Braz Izzard sealed the milestone result for NSW – though Queensland would win the remaining two games to take the series.

1985 – O’Connor dominates the scoreboard

NSW set a course for their first Origin series triumph with a dominant 18-2 win in wet and muddy Lang Park conditions in game one. After a try-less first half, the Blues powered to an unassailable lead via two tries to debutant and former Wallaby Michael O’Connor, who added five goals for a mortgage on the NSW scoresheet – but tireless back-rower Peter Wynn would scoop man-of-the-match honours. The Blues sealed an emotional series win at home in game two. O’Connor went on to set Blues records for most Origin tries (11) and points (129) that still stand today. 

1987 – Blues’ mad scramble thwarts ‘Alfie’s’ debut

Such is the folklore surrounding future Queensland legend Allan Langer’s Origin debut that many forget NSW won the match. Unwanted by coach Wayne Bennett and several senior Maroons, pint-sized halfback Langer produced a gutsy and brilliant display in the first of a then-record 34 Origin appearances. Queensland clawed back from 16-6 down to level the scores, but NSW produced Origin’s first great last-gasp try – a frantic movement inside the final minute that saw the ball ricochet into the in-goal before another debutant, Mark McGaw, planted the ball just inside the dead-ball line for a 20-16 win. Adding to the first-gamer narrative, Blues forward Les Davidson became the only player in Origin history besides inaugural 1980 recipient Chris Close to win the man-of-the-match award on debut. Queensland won the remaining two games to take out their first series since 1984, before the rivals went on a California junket for an official State of Origin match won by NSW that is not regarded as part of the 1987 series.

1989 – Rookies run riot in record rout 

NSW pulled out the big guns after losing the 1988 series 3-0, handing the reins to master coach Jack Gibson – who named eight debutants for game one of the ’89 rubber. But it was Queensland’s newcomers who shone at Lang Park, with 19-year-old winger Michael Hancock scoring two tries and livewire hooker Kerrod Walters tearing the Blues’ defence to shreds in an unprecedented 36-6 beatdown that remained a Maroons record until 2015. Wally Lewis’ Queenslanders went on to record another cleansweep.

1994 – Coyne-ing a phrase

“That’s not a try, that’s a miracle,” commentator Ray Warren famously exclaimed as Queensland produced Origin’s greatest escape act in the 1994 series opener. The match was far from a classic for the first 75 minutes, with NSW largely dominating but only leading 12-4. A hot-potato try finished by Willie Carne gave the Maroons a sniff, however, and a movement that started on their own 40-metre line, went from one sideline to the other and back again, and passed through nine sets of hands eventually saw interchange back Mark Coyne reach out for a staggering match-winner. Coach Wally Lewis and manager Dick ‘Tossa’ Turner embraced ecstatically in the stands amid stunned Sydney Football Stadium silence. The Blues won the two remaining matches for a record-equalling third straight series win…but ’94 is chiefly remembered for Coyne’s miracle try.

1995 – ‘Fatty’s’ no-names snare low-scoring classic

The Super League war stripped Queensland of the vast majority of their star players, plus incoming coach Wayne Bennett. Maroons great Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin stepped into the breach with a squad boasting eight largely unheralded debutants and arguably only three players – Gary Larson, Billy Moore and Mark Coyne – who would have made a full-strength 17. The Blues also fielded eight newcomers but looked light years strong on paper. Defying all expectations, the courageous Maroons pulled off one of the unlikeliest upsets in the code’s history – a 2-0 triumph in front of a disbelieving Sydney crowd. The underdogs made their intentions clear with committed, aggressive defence from the outset and their belief only grew as the match wore on. The desperate Blues pummelled the try-line but were repeatedly rebuffed, with Wayne Bartrim’s 30th-minute penalty the only score in what remains the lowest-scoring top-level rugby league match of the past 40 years. The fairytale was only just getting started: ‘Fatty’s’ heroes went on to carve out an astonishing 3-0 whitewash.

1998 – ‘Kevvie’s’ gamble wins thriller

Queensland added another extraordinary chapter to the narrative of unbelievable Origin finishes in the 1998 series opener, conjuring a try in the final seconds to steal a 24-23 result. The lead changed hands five times in an end-to-end rollercoaster, NSW seemingly wrapping it up with back-to-back tries to regain control at 23-18. With the Maroons pinned down near their own line inside the final two minutes, Kevin Walters launched an all-or-nothing kick downfield. The gutsy play paid off as interchange speedster Ben Ikin won the race to the ball near halfway. Queensland worked play downfield, and three rucks later, brothers Jason and Darren Smith sent the ball on for Walters, who popped a short ball for first-gamer Tonie Carroll to crash over with 45 seconds on the clock. Fellow debutant Darren Lockyer calmly potted the conversion from a few metres to the right of the posts to claim a one-point triumph.

2000 – Tallis marched in controversial conclusion

Gorden Tallis became just the second player to be sent off in State of Origin, marched in the dying stages of a controversial Stadium Australia showdown for allegedly calling referee Bill Harrigan ‘a f***ing cheat’. The Queensland firebrand was incensed after multiple clear knock-ons were missed in the lead-up to NSW’s score-levelling try with 10 minutes to go. With four minutes left the Blues seized upon their one-man advantage to produce the match-winning try for fullback David Peachey in what would be his only Origin match, the hosts getting up 20-16 on their way to a three-nil whitewash.

2001 – New-look Maroons flip script

Some pundits were reading State of Origin its death rites after NSW’s 56-16 demolition in the 2000 dead-rubber, so Queensland turned to supercoach Wayne Bennett to revive their fortunes the following season. A team containing 10 debutants ambushed the Blues at Suncorp Stadium, with Maroons newcomers Carl Webb, John Buttigieg, John Doyle and Chris Walker among the tryscorers in a memorable 34-16 upset, while Gorden Tallis was a blockbusting man-of-the-match in his first match as skipper. Despite the absence of Tallis for the decider, the Maroons went on to win the series in similarly emphatic fashion after famously recalling Allan Langer from England.

2004 – Timmins’ golden boot

Golden point came into effect in the NRL in 2003 and was a welcome addition to the Origin arena after Queensland had retained the shield following drawn deciders in 1999 and 2002. The bitter rivals – who were minus linchpins Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer – couldn’t be separated after 80 minutes of the 2004 opener, with Shaun Timmins’ try and two goals to Craig Fitzgibbon for NSW cancelling out debuting halfback Scott Prince’s dummy-half four-pointer and try he brilliantly laid on for Brent Tate. In the fourth minute of the historic extra-time period, unlikely five-eighth hero Timmins nailed a 37-metre field goal to end the game 9-8.

2005 – Bowen plucks extra-time win from thin air

For the second straight year, the Origin series opener went into golden point – but the ’05 edition was a far more entertaining spectacle. Queensland rolled to 19-0 early in the second half, but four unanswered NSW tries catapulted the visitors into a one-point lead. The Maroons’ halfback debutant Johnathan Thurston snapped a field goal from close range in the dying stages to send the match into extra-time, where NSW counterpart Brett Kimmorley sealed his place in intercept infamy three minutes in when his cut-out pass was plucked out of the air on the Blues’ 40-metre line by Maroons interchange specialist Matt Bowen. The quicksilver Bowen raced in unopposed to capture the game one spoils for Queensland, capping one of Origin’s most extraordinary instalments.

2011 – Maroons’ big guns foil brave Blues

After dominating early at a sold-out Suncorp Stadium, five-time defending champs Queensland were forced to delve into its deep reservoir of match-winning class to overcome a valiant, new-look NSW outfit in the series opener. The Maroons led 10-0 early in the second half, but the underdog Blues -fielding five debutants – hung tough and grabbed a shock lead with 10 minutes to go through tries to Mitchell Pearce and Greg Bird.. But it was short-lived – the old firm of Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Darren Lockyer worked a set play inside NSW’s quarter that resulted in Billy Slater steaming onto an inside ball from his skipper and crashing over at the 72-minute mark.

2014 – Courage under fire in ‘The Cauldron’

NSW took the first step to ending Queensland’s eight-year reign with a gallant 12-8 victory at Suncorp Stadium in the 2014 series opener – the 100th Origin encounter. In a gripping and brutal encounter, the courage of Blues twins Brett and Josh Morris claimed a niche in rugby league folklore: Brett damaged a shoulder scoring NSW’s opening try and Josh injured his knee, but both pulled off stunning try-savers during the last 12 minutes of a nail-biter. The Blues, minus the Morris brothers, wrested the shield from the Maroons’ iron grip with a 6-4 win in Sydney in game two.

2020 – Shades of ’95

COVID-19’s squeeze on the usual season schedule necessitated State of Origin’s shift to a post-season timeslot in 2020. Played on three consecutive Wednesdays in November, the series produced the biggest boilover result since Queensland’s triumph in the Super League war-ravaged 1995 season. Wayne Bennett heeded the call from the Maroons after incumbent coach Kevin Walters relinquished the role to concentrate on his new duties at the Broncos and Queensland fielded a team containing eight debutants in the Adelaide Oval-hosted series opener. NSW led 10-0 at halftime but crumbled to lose 18-14 with newcomers Kurt Capewell and AJ Brimson shining alongside brilliant halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Cameron Munster for the rank underdogs.

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