Wally Lewis told me about his Queensland career as part of Thirteen’s 16-page State of Origin feature in 2005…
Tell us about Senator Ron McAuliffe and his importance in the concept of State of Origin…
He was a lifeline. Without him it was doubtful that it would have gone ahead. There was some criticism from NSW club about the interstate series continuing because they believed it was an opportunity for injuries. To a certain extent I suppose it was a correct statement. NSW were winning them by a considerable margin. It was embarrassing.
Did you play much in the Inter-state games?
Not really. My first game was in 1979. I had a dream about turning the tide. I was like any other young boy dreaming about Queensland but always trudged away from Lang Park shattered. We were always in the battle for three quarters of the game. I’d be thinking we were going to win but it didn’t happen. When we did win an inter-state game, about once every twenty years, it was declared a bloody national holiday! It was getting embarrassing and Ron started putting it on to Ken Arthurson to come up with State of Origin. There were some questions about whether it’d go ahead. His argument was always “if you give us our players back we will beat you. You’re raping our playing strengths year after year after year. You’ve had the opportunity to provide the finance because of your poker machines.” He always promised Queensland would win in a State of Origin.
What are your memories of the inaugural game? You played loose forward didn’t you?
Yeah that was the position I played from my very first match as a seven year old boy. It was a dream come true. I’d been selected to play in the team alongside some of the legends of the sport especially the great Arthur Beetson. The greatest memory was the noise that erupted at Lang Park when he was introduced when we walked onto the field. We were told we’d be introduced to the crowd individually. All the players were welcomed onto the field. When it was Arthur’s turn…I’ve said this many times….I’ve never heard a noise to level that sound. I don’t think there ever will be another sound to match that one.
What about the 1981 Origin? It was a great game but not often talked about…
In 1981 – that was something else. There was confusion with that game. It was no longer a promotional match. I can remember going into the game thinking “we’ve still got Arthur.” He was approaching 36 so it was going to be difficult for him but he was still playing some wonderful football. I remember he came up to me after the side was selected and said “mate you’re going to have to captain the side.” I said “What?! I’m only 21!” He said “I’m no good.” He had an injury and also a huge cut over one eye. “My form’s shit anyway. I don’t deserve to be picked in the team.” At that stage I’d just taken over the captaincy at my club side, Valleys, and only had six or eight games under my belt.
I was so nervous and we knew NSW would come back at us to reverse the loss from 1980. The game was being promoted by the NSW media as the game they’d be taking seriously. It appeared it’d be tough and we were soon 15-0 down. We managed to score just before half time which lifted our spirits and I remember at half time and Arthur came up to me and said “look you’re the captain. If we are any hope in this game it’s up to you. All the hope rests on your shoulders.” I thought “gee!”
But I scored a try just as we took to the field which lifted us more and we were only five points behind. We bunged on a bit of a blue later on. Ray Price got a bit worked up, knowing they were struggling. Then we levelled it. Then we got another one. I said to our guys, “it might be time to start another fight! They’re getting shittier by the minute here!” So, we’d won two from two and Queenslanders knew that State of Origin was their game.
What about the theory that the Blues didn’t try as hard?
Every time they lost the Sydney media claimed they hadn’t been taking it seriously and it used to piss me off. The journos said we were taking it more seriously. We should have got a journo to stand up to a NSW player and tell them they weren’t taking it seriously because I guarantee you they wouldn’t repeat that accusation. On the field they were putting in 100%. We knew they were playing tough and were very difficult to defeat.
What about the 1983 series and the deciding game at Lang Park?
We smashed them to bits in that decider in Queensland. 33-0 up in the first half!. I just grabbed my blokes and said: “look at the scoreboard. It‘s 33-0 at the moment! You might not see a scoreboard like that again. This is how well you blokes are playing at the moment” It ended up 43-22 but the way we smashed the Blues to bits in the first half was great. We just demoralised them.
In 1987, with you playing stand off, were you worried about Allan Langer’s call up given his inexperience and lack of size?
Yeah I was. I’d played against Alf in a couple of matches and defence wasn’t his strongest point at that stage. We’d played against him at Ipswich the week before and while he was good in attack, our club half back (who just happened to be a New South Welshman) got through Alfie a few times. Bennett noticed and bought it up a selection meeting and I said “all I can tell you is that he struggled in defence at the weekend and he may be a target for NSW.” Bennett looked at me and said “Thanks.” That was it and I went. Ten minutes later they’d named the side and Langer was in. It was a surprise and the meeting amounted to my opinion not being worth two bob.
In training we were going through our defensive patterns and Bennett said Alf would stand behind the line. Paul Vautin came in and said: “he’s playing for Queensland! No one’s going to fucking hide! If he‘s got the maroon jersey on he‘s going to be ten foot tall and bullet proof!” He looked at Alf and said “you’re not going to hide are you?” And Alf was too scared to say anything else but “No!” Vautin said “Good! If anyone runs at you you’re going to knock them arse over head aren’t you?” “Yeah.” Vautin looked at Bennett and said “if he stands next to me he’s not going to miss a tackle all night so we’ll keep the same defensive pattern we’ve always had.” Alf didn’t exactly knock them arse over head but he didn’t miss too many tackles and he introduced his tackling technique – the trip – something I didn’t agree with but his performance booked the Maroon number seven for years.
Your try in 1989 is one of State of Origin’s most famous moments. Is that one of your greatest moments?
It was probably one of Queensland’s greatest moments. We’d been shot to bits. Langer had broken his leg. Mal Meninga had broken his arm. Vautin broke his arm or wrist. Bobby Lindner broke his leg and Michael Hancock did his shoulder I think. We’d lost blokes left right and centre. We were gone, shot to bits. That’s what the Blues were saying as well. We had to show more spirit than any other performance before that night and we wrapped up the series with a 16-12 win.
What are the other great memories for you?
I’d regard 1987 and 1989 as wonderful series. In 1987 we had to turn it around. We were shot ducks, one down in the series, and had to come back and win the second game in Sydney. Then we came home and managed to win the decider and all that was after losing the series in 1985 and 1986. We hadn’t seen what winning a football game was like for such a long time so the 1987 series, for us, was just magnificent. Then the 1989 series because of that great battle in Sydney when we had blokes busted up all over the place then we came home to Lang Park and beat them 36-16 to complete the whitewash.1991 was a great series too. Only two points in every game and it went right down to the wire.
In the 1991 series there was the famous moment when the hooter went in game one and you all celebrated but Bill Harrigan had awarded a penalty on halfway to the Blues. Were you worried Greg Alexander would kick it and force a draw?
In situations like that blokes can get an adrenaline rush to provide them with something extra but I didn’t think he would quite make it. I said to my guys “if the ball comes to you then intentionally knock it on. Just drop it. Just in case when you run with it someone rips it out and they score.” When he kicked the ball I caught it and I don’t know why but I just got this rush through my head thinking that if I’d dropped it then the referee might have penalised me for an intentional knock on. So I just ran forward and Chris Johns tackled me but I had the ball in the furthest arm and it’d have been like getting gold out of Fort Knox. He certainly wasn’t getting that ball off me.
What about the infamous beer cans incident?
I was a little bit dirty on the referee but much more so with the touchjudge because he was a filthy liar! We had the Queensland touch judge fifteen metres away who ran in and explained the situation. Phil Daly had come in with the knees on our hooker Greg Conescu and had started punching him. Conescu was on the ground with both arms wrapped around the ball. Then the NSW touch judge, who had come in from 65 metres away said, “no, no that’s not what happened. Conescu was on the ground and he threw the first punch.” I thought, “you fucking liar!” So the referee believes him and if you watch the tape you can lip read me repeating over and over “but he had the ball!” The Queensland touch judge backed me up but Greg went to the sin bin for five minutes. So we had a situation where a New South Wales referee listens to the New South Wales touch judge and blanks the Queensland touch judge. I then got sin binned for running in!
What about the aftermath to the whole incident?
The official said to me afterwards that I’d run in 40 metres and punched Daly. I said “40 metres?!” I just thought that this bloke was getting worse and worse! Anyway I thanked the ref because we got on with each other and turned to the touch judge and said, “and you…you’re just a filthy liar!” He dropped his head. And the Queensland touch judge just laughed.
I told the ref to look at on the tape and discover for himself who the liar was.
As for the cans…well that was what most of the criticism was about. The NSW press accused me of inciting a riot! I thought “well that’s good!” apparently I’d invited the crowd to throw cans at the referee and I copped it for about three or four days!
Who was the best NSW player you faced?
Brett Kenny was the best five-eighth. But the best NSW player was Peter Sterling. He was just a bloke who planned his game very well.
What was the Legends Origin game in 2001 like? You scored the winning try as well…
Yeah it was good to play with them again. The skill was there with the blokes but just at a slower pace! It was good to join up with everyone again.