For more than 40 years, rugby league has embodied all the hopes and dreams, contradictions and tensions of life in the Sunshine State. The game speaks to Queenslanders’ sense of being the underdog and the outsider – a powerful undercurrent that sweeps through politics, business, the arts, and sport. The enduring appeal of State of Origin is that it allows Queensland to balance the scales, at least for 80 minutes.
In Heartland, journalist Joe Gorman chronicles a tale of loss and rebirth – from the decline of the Brisbane Rugby League competition and North Queensland’s Foley Shield to the extraordinary rise of the Broncos and the Cowboys in the NRL. Weaving together stories of diehard supporters and game-changing players, from Arthur Beetson to Johnathan Thurston, this is a revealing account of Queensland’s coming of age, both on and off the field.
Of all the numerous successes of the State of Origin concept, perhaps the series’ greatest gift to Australian rugby league was its ability to transcend the turmoil that surrounded it in the regular season. Particularly in Queensland, Origin was the calendar event and the most treasured rugby league tradition.
Every year since the inaugural series in 1980, Alf Abdullah, the secretary of the Sarina Crocodiles, would purchase a stack of tickets from the Queensland Rugby League, organise a crew of his mates from the Mackay region, and enjoy the trip to Brisbane. ‘What I liked about Origin,’ he later recalled, ‘was it felt like the country meeting the city.’
Many of the former players, though, felt as if they had more to give. They had put their bodies on the line to build a commercial and cultural juggernaut for rugby league, but once they retired from football they were effectively out on their own, with sore joints and fading memories their only link to that breakthrough decade of the 1980s. ‘It was hard yards,’ explained Gene Miles, who retired from the Queensland side in 1988. ‘Back in the day, once you had finished State of Origin footy, nobody wanted to know about you. We couldn’t get a ticket to the game. Meninga couldn’t get a ticket, Lewis couldn’t get a ticket. It was as simple as that.’
That was not good enough for Tosser Turner. He treasured the time he had spent with the players and looked after them wherever he could. In return, the players loved him for his big-hearted approach to team camps and his stirring motivational speeches. ‘They call him the Godfather of Origin, and that’s what he was,’ Mal Meninga once said. ‘It wasn’t about the footy, either, it was about the person. It was all about looking after his boys. That’s what I learned from Tosser: footy teams are mateships and relationships. It’s about caring for people, looking after them, making sure their families are looked after really well. Tosser started those traditions out of his own pocket.’
Although he served as chairman of the Redcliffe Dolphins and the South Queensland Crushers, Tosser remained above petty club politics. He appreciated every player who pulled on a Maroon jersey, no matter who they played for week-to-week. Once, when asked by a reporter to name his favourite State of Origin player, Tosser responded: ‘As far as Queensland is concerned, you are talking about a family environment. There are no favourites.’
During 1997, as the Origin series split in two, Turner and fellow South Queensland Crushers board member Alan Graham decided to call a reunion for all the former Queensland State of Origin representatives at the Caxton Hotel in Brisbane. Some of the men hadn’t seen one another for years, and the goodwill that the catch-up created inspired Turner and Graham to formalise it into something permanent and official. From that simple reunion the Former Origin Greats – or FOGs, as it came to be known – was born.
The Former Origin Greats was created to serve two interrelated purposes. First, it was a means of recognising and connecting those men who had worn the Maroon jersey – whether for one game or 30. ‘It was about trying to remember each other,’ recalled Mike McLean, who played five games for Queensland in 1991 and 1992. Second, it was an opportunity to raise money for various causes, such as Origin camps, junior competitions, charities, rural programs, and Indigenous education initiatives. In the years to come FOGs would develop a business model that allowed Gene Miles to become the organisation’s first full-time employee and create a valuable link to state and federal governments. In some ways, FOGs was not unlike an RSL club in the sense that it channelled the community standing of veterans for wider social purposes. It also adopted a number system for the players – Arthur Beetson was given the No. 1, Wally Lewis No. 9, Allan Langer No. 50, and so on.
The fact that guys like John Ribot, who should have theoretically been Tosser’s enemy during the Super League war, were appointed to the board of directors was illustrative of the magnanimous spirit of the organisation. ‘During that period, I’d see Tosser and I’d say hello,’ recalled Ribot. ‘We weren’t going out for dinner but he understood what I was about and I understood what he was about. There was a bigger calling with Tosser – he was such a proud Queenslander.’
This is an edited extract from Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland by Joe Gorman, University of Queensland Press, RRP $32.95. Available 20 August.