“Apart from winning a premiership, one of the greatest thrills I had in footy was playing for Victoria,” Lloyd said. “I would have done anything to play, but I remember that day thinking, ‘This might be the end of it,’ with the lack of response we were getting from key players.”
Victorian coach Robert Walls and chairman of selectors Gerard Healy had been forced to do the roll call after several star players pulled out in the lead-up to the game. Their lack of enthusiasm became infectious.
“At least we knew the ones who were there wanted to be part of it,” Walls said.
The ramifications were apparent to Walls as he unwittingly prepared to become the last person to coach Victoria against South Australia.
“I didn’t know if it would be the last one for a long while, but there was no doubt it had lost its gloss,” Walls said.
Even the doyen of commentators, Bruce McAvaney, sensed the future when he called from the MCG commentary box at the opening bounce that this was “maybe the last time these two teams play one another”.
McAvaney’s call was prescient. Just 10 years after the state-of-origin concept reached its peak (for Victorians at least) in the 1989 match at the MCG, when 91,960 saw the ‘Big V’ dominate SA and win by 86 points, with champion forwards Tony Lockett, Jason Dunstall (who was actually from Queensland) and Dermott Brereton contributing 12 goals between them, it was all over.
The seeds of the declined had been sown in 1987 when the West Coast Eagles entered the competition. The Adelaide Crows’ introduction in 1991 only accelerated its extinction.
It was during the Crows’ first season that Western Australians began to question the worth of state-of-origin matches. The Eagles lost four of their last 10 matches in 1991 to finish runners-up to Hawthorn after 14 Eagles players had played for the state team that thrashed Victoria in July that season.
The next season, with the AFL premiership a clear focus for West Coast, Victoria defeated a Western Australian team containing 13 Eagles’ players at the MCG. It was an unfair burden for one club to carry with a Victorian administrator noting many Eagles sitting out the final quarter on the bench.
Adding to the unease among clubs and players the ACL injury Hawthorn and South Australian star Tony Hall had suffered when he buckled as his Hawthorn teammate and Victorian opponent Andy Collins tackled him from behind in the 1989 match.
Crowds dwindled, too, as spectators saw the best players compete every week in the AFL for their clubs, and sensed their reluctance to put their bodies on the line for a state game in the middle of the season.
There was also debate about eligibility, with an Allies team formed to cater for players from Tasmania, NSW, Queensland and Northern Territory struggling to attract available players. Dean Solomon, who will be an assistant coach for Victoria on Friday night, was selected for the Allies in 1998 after just seven games after established players pulled out.
Walls, a premiership coach with Carlton, still appreciates the dilemma facing players.
“A lot of players want to play for their state but once they get their first state jumper a lot of them think, ‘To be honest, I would rather be playing for my club,’ particularly if they are playing for a club that is a successful team,” Walls said.
The AFL began to realise that a product diluted by the absence of several stars had no chance of success.
Wayne Jackson, the AFL chief executive when the 1999 match was played, said the appetite for state-of-origin had disappeared by the time he was in charge.
“When it was stopped there was no groundswell of support for the principle from clubs or players other than them mouthing, ‘oh yes we would like to see [state-of-origin],” Jackson said.
The AFL, which had signed a four-year deal in 1998 to play the Irish in a post-season International Rules series each year, began prioritising that idea instead.
Jackson remains sceptical, even now, that clubs really want state-of-origin matches played.
“You never see a coach come out and say, ‘I am totally opposed to state of origin,’ yet a lot of them are,” Jackson said.
“Most of it is to do with losing players.”
It’s why the AFLPA’s attempt to get a state-of-origin concept off the ground again in 2014 failed.
The game’s stars supported the push to play a three-season series involving each state or a city versus country concept that would replicate the under-18 championship model, but the clubs and AFL rejected the proposal.
The AFL have conceded for many years they can’t match the ultra-successful NRL State of Origin series that attracts huge crowds and television audiences.
The NRL players buy in, too, with payment of $30,000 each per Origin game adding incentive for them them to risk all for state pride.In the AFL club success remains central, both culturally and financially.
The truth is many AFL coaches are twitchy ahead of Friday night’s bushfire relief match as their best players go into battle on the eve of the season, respecting the cause but worrying about the risks.
Still, Lloyd’s memories of wearing the ‘Big V’ are so vivid he would encourage any player to play.
“It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. To play for Victoria on that weekend off, I just jumped at the chance,” Lloyd said.
He remains hopeful there might be a chance to play matches every four seasons so modern players can have the same experience. Others suggest state teams should be selected and jumpers awarded each year as part of Australian Football Hall of Fame celebrations.
Friday night’s match might determine the enthusiasm for the concept but with International Rules to resume in Ireland at the end of this season and a premiership in everyone’s sights, the chances of a full scale return are unlikely. Jackson, the former chief executive, summed up the thoughts of many: “I just pray no-one gets hurt.”
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.