IT'S HARD to believe tonight's State of Origin clash in Sydney will be the 100th game I have been involved with since Arthur Beetson and Wally Lewis launched the concept at Lang Park back in July 1980.

I was a much younger sports reporter then, working for a national news agency having just moved from Sydney to Brisbane with my wife to begin a family.

It wasn't long after arriving in town I was enjoying (drinking) sessions with the late Queensland Rugby League chairman, and senator, Ron McAuliffe in an bar at the side of Lang Park known as the "Germ Room" .

That was where he often held court, and probably where the idea for a game where players actually represented their state was devised in the company of another very passionate Queenslander, the late Ross Livermore.

They and many others like them helped educate this interloper from NSW - or my as mates call me at Origin time, "turncoat" - about what it meant to be a Queenslander.

During 36 years of covering State of Origin, I witnessed some amazing events - some I still can't print.

The early years of Origin were a far cry from today where players stay in five-star resorts with a team of medical experts, physios, dieticians and trainers at their beck and call.

Back in those formative years the Queensland team stayed at modest accommodation with a team doctor and team manager looking after them.

I remember the days when the Maroons used to set up camp at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney.

You could always count on a good food poisoning scare or mystery virus sweeping through the team.

The team trained on a public field with no goal posts behind the hotel, waking a few homeless vagrants who were lying under trees hiding their liquid refreshments in brown paper bags.

Beetson and captain Wally Lewis would run a few moves, the players would kick the football to each other, and that was training.

They would get $1000 if they won or a $50 losing payment.

Players running out tonight will get $30,000 win, lose or draw.

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Wally “The King” Lewis beside the statue in his honour at Suncorp Stadium.
Wally “The King” Lewis beside the statue in his honour at Suncorp Stadium. GILLIAN BALLARD

STORIES about Lewis driving the team bus are legendary.

One of the best was his habit of slamming on the brakes just as the last player on board was about to sit down at the back of the bus.

This time the team joker, the late Peter Jackson, decided he'd play his own prank on Lewis, but it backfired and he ended up smashing head-first into the front windscreen of the bus, throwing a massive scare through the camp.

There have been several accounts of this famous story over the years about Jacko, who, like Allan Langer and the Walters brothers, was a real character.

One of my favourite stories was how NSW would find out where the Queensland team was staying and arrange for workmen to use jackhammers, compressors and other loud equipment outside the their hotel to prevent them getting any rest after training.

However they didn't count on the guile of the Queensland team manager, the late Dick "Tosser" Turner, who undermined the ploy by giving the workers enough money to knock off early and go to the pub.

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TURNER was an old fox and alert to all the tricks NSW played over the years.

I would sometimes bump into him on his morning walk around the Bay and he would entertain me with some wonderful Origin stories.

He would always have a Minty in his pocket, which he would give to you like a little gift.

In my 36 years being involved with Origin, I never met more passionate Queenslanders than Turner and Chris "Choppy" Close.

A rarely told story was how McAuliffe threatened to replace three Queensland players - Mark Murray, Rod Morris and Gene Miles - before the first game in 1982.

The three were in the sights of Sydney clubs and refused to sign loyalty agreements McAuliffe had devised, preventing any Queensland player from defecting south the following season.

Turner phoned McAuliffe on the eve of Game I to tell him three players would not sign.

McAuliffe asked Turner who the players were and then bluntly told him: "I'll have three shadow players ready to move into the Gazebo Hotel tomorrow morning so if those contracts aren't signed, consider them replaced," and then hung up.

The three players all signed but made it clear they were doing so under duress.

But that's how McAuliffe operated. He was the boss.

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Former Queensland Origin star Gene Miles.
Former Queensland Origin star Gene Miles. DAVE HUNT

BACK in those days and well into the '90s, bonding sessions were notorious, while after-game celebrations went deep into the next morning, players staggering back into the team hotel about 6am.

Journalists also had much better access to the dressing rooms.

Quite often you would walk into the sheds after a game and talk to players with blood still seeping from a head wound.

They would give you a few ripper quotes about how they got opened up and how they would get square next time.

Wild brawls were as common as scrums and penalties.

It was just a matter of how quickly they erupted and who threw the first punch.

But that's how Origin was in the 1980s and '90s.

"When you came off the field in those days you'd get handed a beer in one hand and have a cigarette in the other," chuckled former champion centre Gene Miles, who played 23 Origins.

"We didn't have GPS trackers, there was no sign of food or freshly cut fruit, no cold baths, we replaced our fluids back then with a cold beer."

The walls of the old Rosie's bar, now a fine Italian restaurant owned by world-renowned chef Jamie Oliver, have some stories of Origin frivolity that were hushed up.

Players even socialised with journalists, sharing a few drinks.

These days, media access is a lot stricter and players are not as willing to say anything that may provide fuel to their rivals when they next meet.

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Billy Slater heads for the line during the 2004 State of Origin series.
Billy Slater heads for the line during the 2004 State of Origin series. COLIN WHELAN

AS A rough estimate I've spent more than 100 weeks of my life since 1980 covering State of Origin.

I've seen 7920 minutes of Origin action and written well over one million words about it.

So, when your boss says: "Hey Ticker, can you give us your favourite Origin moments, games, highlights and memories," you really don't know where to begin.

There are games and moments that will forever stick in your memory like Queensland's magnificent victory in Sydney in 1989.

The Maroons had players being stretchered off all over the place, their dressing room resembling a hospital emergency ward.

Things were looking grim.

Then, Lewis took it upon himself to win the game with an amazing solo try that only the King could have scored.

NSW centre Mark McGaw's last-second try in the corner at Lang Park in 1987, which forced young Queensland coach Wayne Bennett to yell "Oh no!" at the top of his voice, is another that sticks in my mind.

Few tries though will ever be more important than Darren Lockyer's in the final minute of the series decider in Melbourne in 2006.

Had Lockyer not swooped on a loose ball and converted his own try, Queensland would have lost its fourth straight series.

Instead, it was to prove the beginning of a golden decade in which the Maroons won a record eight straight series.

A 19 year-old kid who started out as a train and ended up as a plane arrived on the scene in 2007, with Jarryd Hayne displaying his wonderful athleticism in scoring a sizzling sideline try.

But Billy Slater's try in 2004, when he gathered up a Lockyer chip kick and, almost in the same motion, headed right but kicked left across his body to beat NSW fullback Anthony Minichiello to the ball, will always be special.

And, of course, who will ever forget Mark Coyne's try to win the opening game in 1994, finishing off a move in which almost every Queensland player handled the ball and which prompted Ray Warren's to famously declare: "That's not a try, that's a miracle."

The image of elated teammates Wayne Pearce and Noel Cleal carrying halfback Steve Mortimer off after he kissed the Sydney Cricket Ground turf in 1985 when NSW finally won its first series to me is Origin's version of the famous Norm Provan/Arthur Summons photo.

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Former NSW great and current coach Laurie Daley.
Former NSW great and current coach Laurie Daley. DAMIAN SHAW

IT GOES without saying Lewis, who captained Queensland a record 29 times and won eight man-of-the-match awards, was the best player I saw.

But pound for pound I put Allan Langer up there alongside him.

Lockyer too holds a special place.

Apart from being a magnificent player, he was the ultimate professional in everything he did.

He treated everyone fairly and with respect and he understood the role of the media and was always co-operative.

Most of my reporting was about the Queensland team, so yes, I will admit to a "little" bias over those years.

My favourite NSW player was Laurie Daley.

I've always said If I had to pick a NSW player who I thought would fit straight into a Queensland team, I would pick Daley.

He has that country spirit and deep passion to win and play for his teammates, not himself.

I'll enjoy tonight's game as always, despite the deadline pressures and everything that goes with covering one of the biggest games of the year.

It's been a great ride.


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