Origin is here again, and that means one thing: violence. Sure, it's the best rugby league to be found anywhere in the world at the moment, but let's be honest, the vast majority of fans aren't there for that. I'm a full on rugby league tragic and the sort of guy who goes to watch third grade footy for fun, but that doesn't make me less of a sucker for the siren song of mano-a-mano, big dudes trading big blows, base level entertainment that makes Australia stop three times a year and tune in.
With that in mind, we're kicking off our coverage of State of Origin 2021 with what we all like to see: the biff. Here's the top ten Origin scraps of all time.
10. Payne v Tino
We hear constantly that the game has changed, that we've all gone soft and that Origin isn't what it used to be. Well, thanks to Payne Haas and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, we can be confident that the fire burns on in State of Origin.
This wasn't the cleanest punch-up, and there might be a hint of recency bias here, but for the symbolic role that it plays in reminding us that Origin is still, at its core, state against state and mate against mate, the most recent Origin blue gets into our list. This was a slow-burner, with plenty of push and shove before the big men decided, that, yep, this is Origin, and getting it on is positively encouraged.
9. Luke O'Donnell spear tackle
The issue of foul play is one that overshadowing the 2021 series, as NRL refs clamp down on high tackles and send a spate of players to the bin. It's been a truism in Origin for years that you really, really have to go over the line to get yourself sent off, and nobody could accuse Luke O'Donnell of not trying. Only two players have even been dismissed in Origin: Gordon Tallis in 2000 for calling the ref a cheat, Craig Greenhill in 1996 for what can only be described as a flying Rock Bottom on Paul Harragon, and O'Donnell should have made it three.
The Blues forward dumped Darius Boyd on his neck with a spear tackle, then stuck the nut on Dave Taylor, then threw some punches for good measure...and nothing happened. "You need to calm down," said referee Tony Archer, and that was the end of it.
There was a time when Paul Gallen was a superstar footballer, before he was a mediocre boxer embarrassing the Australian heavyweight scene. Gallen was a first-rate grub, and we loved him for it: if you're gonna play the hardman game, you have to be able to back it up, and boy could Gallen back it up.
He and Nate Myles had enjoyed a rivalry in the past - the Luke O'Donnell spear tackle incident mentioned before was the main event to a Galen - Myles undercard - and this was the culmination of it. With just ten seconds to the break and with New South Wales winning 14-0 in Game 1 of 2013, Gallen decided to cement that superiority by landing a few on the beak of his long-time sparring partner. As they say, he didn't miss.
7. 1984 Game 1
If you think of the best all-time Origin fights, they usually happen towards the start of the game. Set the tone. Feel each other out. See if they're up for it. Well, the earliest fight in Origin history came in Game 2 of the 1984 series, where a blue erupted on just the second tackle of the game.
With the pre-game fireworks still exploding overhead, Gene Miles looked to kick, but was caught in possession. Before he had hit the deck, he was being pummelled by punches. Soon, there were multiple biffs going on, including Greg Conescu and Brett Kenny trading blows on the ground and Ray Price ripping the shirt clean off Chris Close's back. In true blue Origin fashion, the ref blew a penalty, nothing more, and the game went on.
If you have a dog, and you take them to the park, you'll be familiar with this analogy. Everything is normal, the dogs are playing, and suddenly it all gets hectic. It's on, and dogs from everywhere rush into the feeding frenzy. My dog, usually a placid, scaredy character, loves this. He'll race from the other side of the park and launch himself into the fray. In this case, my dog is Michael Jennings. For the record, because I assume Michael Jennings can be a very angry man, I'd like to state that the comparison is dog to Jennings, and not the other way around.
The source of this one - a dispute over the ball - is pretty dog park-esque too. Matt Scott chucks a ball at Jack Bird, and they all run in. Some from further than others, as Blues centre Michael Jennings decides to turn Origin into the Octagon, launching a superman punch at Brett Tate. He got ten minutes in the bin and a lifetime of notoriety for his troubles.
The usual footy fight is fairly prosaic, as fights go. We crowd on, everyone holds everyone, a few get thrown and then it becomes too difficult to work anything out after that. Not this one. Paul "Chief" Harragon and Martin "Munster" Bella were the most heavyweight of the heavyweights in mid-90s Origin, and frankly, acted like it.
When they peeled off from the group to go mano-a-mano in Game 3, 1993, they stood and traded, guards up, in a style of which the Marquess of Queensbury himself would have been proud. Sure, they didn't land many until they got up close and personal, but you have to admire the effort. Amid all of it, Steve Walters and Benny Elias decided it was time to have a cruiserweight square go in the corner, too, to keep the metaphor going.
Behind every great Origin blue, there's usually one of two Queenslanders: Wally Lewis and Martin Bella. We've covered Bella's finest hour, dancing with Paul Harragon, but it's hard to pin down one classic King Wally moment: it could have been raining beer cans incident, where he was binned by referee Mick Stone for backchat, prompting an avalanche of XXXX at Lang Park. That was really Greg Conescu's fight, however, so we can't give it to Lewis.
Instead, it's more of a symbolic choice. The enduring image of Wally in Origin, living rent-free in the heads of New South Welshmen everywhere, is that of him squaring off to Mark Geyer, f on his lips, in black and white with the rain silhouetted behind him. It came seconds after he'd landed a fair few on Michael O'Connor, but the aftermath was the more iconic moment.
Young whippersnappers won't remember that there was a time where Origin wasn't a thing. Well, it was a thing, but it wasn't: players were picked based on the state they played in, rather than the one they (geddit) originated from, so, due to the river of pokies money running through Sydney football, it wasn't really a contest, as all the best players played in New South Wales.
That all changed in 1980. Artie Beetson, who had been denied a chance to represent Queensland when he still played in the Brisbane comp in the 1960s, was lifted out of Parramatta's reserve grade and dropped into Lang Park for Game 1 under the new rules. Just before half-time, Steve Edge threw the first and copped one from Beetson in return: the image of two Parra players swinging for the fences cemented the dynamic that persists to this day.
Vale Tommy Raudonikis, the man behind the myth of one of Origin's greatest brawls. While he was present for the first fight as a player in 1980, it was as a coach that he had his lasting impact on rugby league violence. During the 1997 series, played out amid the Super League War, Tommy was in charge and brought his, err, unique style to the contest.
For Game 3, NSW had a special call, which at Raudonikis' direction, meant to unleash hell. In a scrum, Mark 'Spud' Carroll heard the word 'cattledog' come from the sideline and began swinging at his opposite number, Craig Smith. Andrew Johns took on Jamie Goddard, copping 27 stitches in a split lip for his troubles. It didn't work, as NSW lost the game, but the memory lives on.
I was present for Tommy's commemorations at both Wests and Newtown, and during the minute's silences, shouts of "Cattledog!" rang out. My mate went so far as getting it tattooed on his leg. If you could sum up Origin in one word, that would be it.
1. MCG Brawl
"We have seen plenty of these in Origin and this is one of the best" said Rabs Warren on the commentary. The 1995 MCG brawl, in the belly of the AFL beast, left nobody in any doubt about what Origin meant. Context is everything: Queensland were missing most of their backline as Super League-aligned players were banned. Fatty Vautin - yep, the guy off The Footy Show - was coaching his first game ever. Despite their losses, Queensland took Game 1 in a tryless victory in Sydney.
Fatty told his men of a rumour that NSW had lined up the first person to shout "Queenslander!" to get it in the first scrum of Game 2, held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. He challenged them to shout, to back their mates in and stamp their authority on the game. Reports differ about who shouted it first as they wandered to scrum number one - some say Billy Moore, others Wayne Bartrim - but whoever it was, it was on.
The brawl went for five whole minutes, with Bartrim and Jim Serdaris, Danny Moore and John Hopoate (Manly teammates) and, top of the bill, David Barnhill and Billy Moore, slugging one out for the ages. The crowd went wild, of course, and Queensland were suitably inspired to go on to take the game, and the series, with a 20-12 win.