QUEENSLAND’s two most recent coaches Wayne Bennett and Kevin Walters have paid tribute to Michael Morgan and Jake Friend in the wake of their sudden retirements from the NRL.
The Queensland Origin family was rocked last week when Morgan and Friend drew the curtain on their glittering careers, just 48 hours apart, after both waged a physical and emotional battle to return to rugby league.
Cowboys champion and FOG No.181 Morgan ultimately succumbed to a chronic shoulder injury, while Sydney Roosters stalwart and FOG No.208 Friend could no longer risk his long-term health after being sidelined by a series of concussions.
The fact the pair announced their retirement ahead of time underlines their courage –Morgan and Friend so often putting the interests of their respective teams, including the Maroons, ahead of self-preservation.
The 31-year-old Friend played 264 games in a stellar 14-season career with the Roosters, while Morgan, just turned 29, amassed 168 matches and 12 Tests for Australia during his decade at North Queensland.
Both won premierships, but their contribution to the Maroons cause is just as significant.
Morgan played 12 games for the Maroons between 2015-19, and while Friend managed just three games, his heroics during Queensland’s epic series upset of the Blues last year will never be forgotten.
Morgan’s flick pass which kept the Cowboys alive to win the 2015 premiership is part of grand-final history, but he also produced a similar play to save Queensland’s bacon in the 2017 Origin series.
With Queensland trailing 16-12 in Game 2 at Homebush, Morgan, playing centre, produced a sublime pass for Dane Gagai’s try which levelled scores at 16-all with three minutes to play.
Johnathan Thurston then landed the booming sideline conversion to clinch victory – and Queensland went on to win the decider 22-6.
That moment of magic summed up Morgan’s ability to deliver when a game was on the line.
“He was a very good player, he had some great moments for Queensland and for Australia,” Walters said.
“Morgo not only had excellent skills but he was a very good team player.
“Coaching him in the Queensland side, I loved Morgo’s ability to play a few different positions.
“Everyone remembers his flick pass to Kyle Feldt in the 2015 grand final, but what shouldn’t be forgotten is his flick pass to Dane Gagai for the try which levelled the scores in Game 2 of the 2017 Origin series.
“It was Morgo who set up that try, and then ‘Thursto’ kicked the winning goal from the sidelines to keep us in the series. It was a huge play which won us the series in the end.
“It was comforting to know you had a player like Morgo who could handle a number of positions and he never once questioned anything. It was all about the team, and that’s what you need in a team sport like rugby league.”
Like Morgan, Friend was the ultimate warrior.
The rugged hooker from Noosa could have easily amassed 20 Origin matches for Queensland, and it was only the brilliance of Cameron Smith which kept him out of a Maroons jumper for so long.
But when he finally got his chance last season, Friend didn’t disappoint.
He amassed 116 tackles across the three games and was the senior hard-head who provided the glue for a team of Queensland rookies.
Fittingly, when Queensland celebrated a stunning 20-14 victory in the decider before 50,000 fans at Suncorp, it was Friend who had possession as the fulltime siren sounded.
When Maroons players were polled on their best-and-fairest for the series, Friend won the votes.
“Jake was always someone I admired,” Bennett said.
“I’d seen him be such a great team player for so long, and I just needed him in that Queensland team.
“I always felt there wasn’t a time I had ever seen him on the field where he didn’t give his best.
“He won three premierships with the Roosters, and he was always a wonderful, tough competitor.
“I thought it was significant and fitting in the last play of the series when it was so close and he was the guy right in the middle of it all when they lost the ball in that tackle.
“He was extremely brave and he never lacked any courage. Jake had a remarkable career.”