Out of the ugliest ‘contest’ rugby league in Australia was spawned perhaps State of Origin’s most special effort.
It happened in 1995 when the depleted Maroons were written off so badly, they were given 18.5 points start by bookmakers in the first game. And the lack of faith in the Queensland team that was missing 10 players from the ’94 series – unofficially banned because they had decided to join Super League clubs – was obvious internally also.
Coach Wayne Bennett walked away because he didn’t want to coach a ‘dud’ side and the job was subsequently given to Channel 9 celebrity Paul Vautin, whose only previous coaching was winning the five-round State League with Brisbane Capitals in 1995.
The announcement was met with disdain and disbelief from the media and when Vautin called his longtime mate Trevor Gillmeister to tell him the news, ‘Gilly’ laughed before Vautin added, “Well you know what’s funnier, you’re the captain!”
When the game one team was announced, Queensland had only Gillmeister, Mark Hohn, Gavin Allen, Mark Coyne, Billy Moore and Gary Larson who had had Origin experience. Banished were Allan Langer, Steve, Kerrod and Kevin Walters, Steve Renouf, Willie Carne, Brad Thorn, Gorden Tallis, Julian O’Neill, Darren Smith and Wendell Sailor.
The Blues had 10 players who toured with the Kangaroos in 1994 including Brad Fittler, Matthew and Andrew Johns, Paul Harragon, Paul McGregor, Steve Menzies, Tim Brasher and Rod Wishart.
When Allen called Hohn after the Queensland team announcement – during half-time of the Monday night televised game between Manly and Canterbury – he said, “Hohny, are you looking at this? I don’t know who the hell we’ve got here.”
Hohn replied, “I think we’re going to get flogged. And how do you think I feel … I could only make the bench!”
At the first team meeting, Vautin had his underdogs so fired up, and was so emotional in his parochialism, it brought his usually outspoken team manager Chris Close to tears. The belief changed from that moment.
The performance by the Maroons of ’95, the ARL loyalists in time of ‘Super League war’, is legendary.
After winning Origin’s only try-less game 2-0 at the Sydney Football Stadium, they backed up with winning the series at the Melbourne Cricket Ground 20-12 before recording Origin’s most unlikely whitewash 24-16 at Lang Park.
This, and many more stories from the Super League War that upended the game, will be recalled at the Men of League Foundation’s Queensland Annual Lunch, presented by Newstead Brewing Co. on 7 September.