I guess my main criteria here was that every time I think of NSW Origin football, the pictures, visions or moments that I recall so vividly always seem to include these players.
So, here they are.
No.5 – Steve Mortimer
It was important to me that NSW Origin teams from the ’80s were represented. This is the era in which State of Origin was born. The fact that these Origin series in the early days were dominated by Queensland is a valuable part of our rugby league history. It’s what made State of Origin. The fighting spirit of the underdog in overcoming the formidable foe is a part of our Australian DNA. We love this stuff.
However, it really did get to the point of embarrassment that NSW teams just couldn’t match the passion and commitment of their Queensland rivals.
Enter Steve Mortimer.
Steve was the first captain to lead NSW to Origin success, in 1985. A little-known stat is that Mortimer only captained NSW on three occasions during the 1984-85 seasons. NSW won all three games.
I will never forget the scenes at full-time with Mortimer kissing the SCG turf and being chaired on the shoulders of his teammates from the playing arena in celebration.
It was a moment he deserved. He was a player of unquestioned talent; a brilliant footballer. But he was also a man of great passion and conviction. He was prepared to lay it all on the line in pursuit of victory. This is the common trait among all great Origin players.
It was the Blues’ first Origin series win. Mortimer was a driving force behind this breakthrough success. It’s a memory burned into my brain. That’s why Mortimer is name is on this list.
No.4 – Andrew Johns
Quite easily, Andrew could have been named at No.1. I don’t think there’s doubt in anyone’s mind, Johns is the most talented footballer to play for this state. He is an Immortal for God’s sake.
NSW Origin moments involving him easily come to mind. There were times where he was so completely dominant. Absolutely everything revolved around him.
I have my favourite Johns performances.
In game one of 2002, Queensland were raging-hot favourites. NSW had been written up as being the worst Origin team ever selected. Johns was having none of that. He totally obliterated Queensland in the first 40 minutes to drive the Blues to a 21-4 lead. The second-half 11-0 shut-out produced a final score of 32-4, which reflected his dominance. It was a stunning performance.
One of my favourite Origin games of all time was game one of 2003. This was the first Origin match to be played at the newly renovated Suncorp Stadium. Queensland were a great side. Both sides were outstanding on the night. It was a tremendous Origin contest.
With 12 minutes left to play, the scores were locked at 12-all. Johns had been brilliant all game. He was a major reason we were still in the contest. However, his final 12 minutes, which produced a 25-12 victory for NSW was an absolute masterclass.
We all remember Origin II, 2005.
Johns missed game one with a broken jaw. In fact, he hadn’t played Origin football since 2003 due to injury. NSW had lost the opening match. Even though Andrew was probably nowhere near peak fitness, Blues coach Ricky Stuart sent out an SOS for the champion halfback.
In one of the most memorable individual performances in Origin history, Johns totally dominated the match to lead the Blues to victory. He repeated the dose in game three to win the series.
No.3 – Glenn Lazarus
Testimony to this man’s ability is the fact that he won premierships with Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne. In the four years that I was lucky enough to coach Lazarus at Origin level, we won all four series.
Quite simply, the teams that Lazarus played for usually won. His contributions were significant in their success.
Forwards win big games. I know it’s the skilful halves who normally get the individual recognition, but even they will tell you that nothing good happens unless the big men are dominating up front. None were better than Lazarus.
He was a mountain among men. I remember game one of the 1993 series at a bulging Lang Park. NSW played without the ball for almost the entire second half, but defended their try line grimly against a brilliant Queensland team to record one of the most courageous victories I have ever seen.
Lazarus played the full 80 minutes. It’s very rare for a front-row forward in Origin football.
After the match he asked me why I had not given him a break. I said: “I just feel more comfortable when you’re out there. Besides, I knew you wouldn’t let Allan Langer score a try.”
Big Lazo just smiled and headed to the showers.
I think he should be recognised as one of the greatest front-rowers of all time.
No.2 – Brad Fittler
Bradley was NSW’s youngest player. By the end of his career he was NSW’s most capped player. He captained NSW more times than anyone else. His career spanned several great eras of Origin football. His ability to influence results is unquestioned. He helped the players around him to become so much better. Individually, he is one of the greatest ball-runners the game has seen.
To me, Fittler’s greatest qualities as a player were his honesty, his humility and his toughness. It’s why there has been such a groundswell of support behind him as NSW coach. His influence and popularity have spanned three decades of Origin football. He is clearly one of NSW’s greatest.
No.1 – Laurie Daley
I don’t think anyone who has been involved with Daley, either playing with or against him, at Origin level will argue with this selection.
Laurie will question it, though. He will quickly give credit to a number of other players he feels should be on the list before him. This is part of his greatness: his appreciation of others, his humility.
Daley was made captain of NSW in 1992. He was a reluctant captain. He even questioned whether he was the man for the job. But he quickly developed into NSW’s greatest leader.
Queensland had dominated Origin football since the concept began in 1980. The great Queenslander Wally Lewis had owned this stage for more than a decade. NSW was looking for a leader and a hero.
Daley was that man.
He captained NSW to three Origin series wins in a row. It was the first time NSW had achieved such a feat. He was the first NSW captain to win a decider in Brisbane when he took on the Maroons in 1994 at a very hostile Lang Park.
Laurie was a devastating runner. He was a fearless defender. He was a passionate leader. He influenced results. He inspired all those around him.
I’m happy to name him No.1.
In fact, given I viewed this an impossible task, I’m pretty happy with my list. Despite the great names I’ve omitted, I’m sure even they will be nodding approvingly at the five Blues I’ve selected.
Maybe you have a different opinion. I would completely understand if you did. Let’s just hope we get to see some Origin football later this year. I really miss it.
Stay safe and healthy everyone.
Phil Gould is a League Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald