State of Origin is the annual best-of-three series of rugby league football matches between the Blues and the Maroons, who represent the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland, respectively. Touted as Australian sport’s greatest rivalry, the State of Origin series is one of the country’s and the region’s premier sporting events, attracting a huge television audience and usually selling out the stadiums in which the games are played. Despite the existence of international tournaments and State of Origin being a domestic competition, it is frequently cited as being the highest-level of rugby league played anywhere in the world.
Players are selected to represent the Australian state in which they played their first senior rugby league, hence the name ‘state of origin’. Prior to 1980 players were only selected for interstate matches on the basis of where they were playing their club football at the time. In both 1980 and 1981 there were two interstate matches under the old selection rules and one experimental “State of Origin” match. From 1982 onwards a best-of-three match series has been played around the middle of the rugby league season for the State of Origin shield. Since its inception, total victories for each side were once extraordinarily even; although since 2006, Queensland have won every series.
Since 1908 Australia’s two major rugby league-playing states, New South Wales and Queensland, have played representative matches against each other and this has continued into the “state of origin” era which began in the 1980s. The two states’ teams are frequently referred to as the Blues and Maroons, reflecting the respective colours of their jerseys. The Blues team is administered by the New South Wales Rugby League and the Maroons by the Queensland Rugby League. Players of the New South Wales team are sometimes referred to as thecockroaches and the Queensland team as the cane toads, due to a marketing campaign used in the 1980s where the respective teams were depicted by caricatures in such a manner.
Whilst other Australian states have also had representative rugby league sides, they have not competed in State of Origin.
The Conception of State of Origin football
By the 1970s the prestige of interstate matches had been seriously downgraded. Matches were played mid-week, so as not to interfere with the Sydney club competition, and the small crowds in New South Wales were hosted at suburban grounds. Interstate football reached its nadir in 1977 when the New South Wales Rugby Football League (NSWRFL) declined to host the Queensland team, and both interstate games were played in Queensland.
Former Queensland captain and Australian vice-captain Jack Reardon, who had later become a journalist, was the first to suggest that Sydney-based Queenslanders should be available for selection to represent their state.
Brisbane Courier-Mail reporter Hugh Lunn, Barry Maranta (the future co-founder of the Brisbane Broncos) and Maranta’s business partner Wayne Reid played a part in persuading QRL chairman Ron McAullife that the concept could be used in rugby league. Lunn told McAullife that “you can take the Queenslander out of Queensland, Ron, but you can’t take the Queensland out of the Queenslander.” McAuliffe was initially sceptical. “What if we recall our boys from Sydney to play, and we are beaten. Where would we go from there?” Reid spoke to NSWRFL president Kevin Humphreys and suggested that a one-off state of origin match could be used as a Test Match selection trial.
New South Wales clubs were reticent in their support of the concept and set two conditions:
- If the third game was to decide the series it was not to act as a selection trial, and
- that the expatriate Queenslanders would be under the supervision of a representative of the NSWRFL whose duty it would be to protect the interests of both the NSWRFL and the clubs to which they were contracted. (From 1980 this role was filled by Bob Abbot, a Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks official.)
Three Sydney clubs remained opposed to the plan: St. George Dragons, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Eastern Suburbs Roosters. As these clubs were refusing to release players, Humphreys threatened to make the game an official Australian Rugby League trial, which would make release mandatory. The clubs backed down.