State of Origin is almost here. Mate against mate, state against state.
Time to chill a few beers, buy some Puffy Dogs (to be put in the oven 12 minutes before kickoff), Cheezels (for a consistent game snack, place one on each finger and enjoy) and some choccies (for the the 20 minutes to go cup of tea).
When I was six, living in the NSW town of Tumut (the land of milk and honey in the heartland of the Group 9) I had a very similar ritual, minus the beers.
I could have still had the beers I’m sure, I just didn’t think to ask for them.
From the first time I saw Origin I was hooked, I care about it, the outcome is important.
I care about it like the three games are the religious festival in the church of rugby league. Blue versus Maroon or Good versus Evil – which is which depends on whose side your on.
I supported the Blues before I’d seen a game. The theatre of it hooked me instantly and every year is a different battle entirely, although a lot of things remain the same.
For instance, as a New South Welshman, in the lead up to Game I, it is about this time that the anxieties about who NSW will pick are peaking.
They will start to decline after the side is named, and you get distracted by the discussion around how quickly they’ll drop these players if they fail to have an impact in Game I.
The NSW coach will be a nightly fixture of the news coverage – he’ll seem confident, happy with how things are progressing.
Talk is consistently upbeat, ‘the camp is really positive’ and the day before Game I: ‘the team couldn’t be more ready’.
On the night of the game, from the second the broadcast commences, you are watching, it’s part of the ritual.
The overly stylised operatic introductions, the banter between former greats on the panel.
The clips of past clashes – the one time of the year you are guaranteed to see Sam Backo. The Puffy Dogs are ready, you dip one in the sauce and you have completed your warm up.
By kick off time, as a NSW fan, your hopes have evolved into confidence. You tell yourself:
“If they win Game I, who knows?”
“They could go all the way!”
“Last year means nothing!”
They cut to the dressing rooms, the NSW coach is always evangelically pumping the team up pre-game.
The Queensland coach always looks like it’s his night off, he’s drinking tea and laughing with Trevor Gillmeister, Alan Langer walks into shot.
Back to the NSW dressing rooms, you start to study the players faces, this continues as they move down the tunnel, run onto the field and all through the pre-match.
You’ve already lost count of how many Puffy Dogs you’ve eaten in the lead up to kick off.
You weren’t even that hungry, but you are convinced that this time, the players look more hungry. They are focused, going through their own rituals, they look ready to go.
The fireworks happen, the national anthem is mouthed confidently, the smoke clears and then the whistle blows and the real fireworks begins.
The opening exchanges of every Origin are worthy highlight reels for the future. Glories and losses forever etched into your mind, like flashbacks.
When I was young, Queensland had a skinny fullback named Gary Belcher – he was a different breed of fullback, especially when compared with the more rugged, tough it out NSW fullback – Garry Jack.
While Gary Belcher is no Billy Slater, they both have that habit of being there when you don’t want them to be, and hitting gaps at speed.
Back then, Queensland also had two halves who, no matter what was happening week-to-week, would show up at Origin games and totally break our hearts: Wally Lewis and Allan Langer.
Usually ahead of the first Origin, people would be questioning Wally’s form at club level.
Now in that role is cast Jonathan Thurston, a superstar player, but not in best form, the Cowboys are coming off the back of a few losses.
But then none of that matters at Origin. Despite my one blue eye, it’s hard to deny the genius of these two Queensland number sixes – phenomenal to watch.
They are big game players, confident leaders, dangerous play makers and two of the best players I have ever seen.
During my childhood years Queensland had a massive centre named Mal Meninga, two actually, Gene Myles wasn’t exactly small, but Mal was a giant.
Another big game player, explosive, I would dread him getting the ball. Every time he got it, he was drawing a lot of defenders, and it always looked like something could happen.
Now they have another giant centre – Greg Inglis, who I regard as the most dangerous footballer I’ve ever seen.
He’ll draw defenders and dictates the play and his potential impact on my NSW heart is the same as it was with Big Mal: devastating.
Gene Myles had that uncanny ability to get a freaky pass away in a tackle – much like Justin Hodges can too. But the similarities between the Queensland of my youth and the current crop doesn’t end there.
As a kid, it always seemed the Queensland side was a constant. Players retired or were injured, but the core group always seemed much the same.
The NSW side was always speculative, there were usually more injury clouds over the NSW players.
But as a kid, NSW fans would usually pin their hopes for victory on two things: our workhorse players like Steve Mortimer, Cliff Lyons, Wayne Pearce, Ray Price.
They seemed tireless, they deserved to have their efforts rewarded, so maybe the gods of rugby league would reward them with a miracle?
Our second hope were the speedsters and individual superstars: Andrew Ettingshausen, Mark McGaw, Michael O’Connor. Maybe their individual brilliance could stop the Maroon freight train?
Many years on: the question can be asked: is this year really any different for NSW?
On schedule, reading the papers and The Roar last week I’ve commenced the process of convincing myself that maybe it will be – maybe Maloney and Pearce’s club combination will click at Origin?
Or if Carney’s picked, his long kicking game could be the difference? Maybe his goal kicking too.
Our workhorses of Gallen, Hoffman, Farah, Lewis, Watmough, Glenn Stewart – if they’re all fit, maybe they will be rewarded for their passion, intensity and work load to deliver us a miracle?
If Hayne and Jennings are in the side, they’ll carry the hopes of the superstars and speedsters. It looks like a strong Blues outfit, maybe they can?
Then I remember that Maroons backline – Cronk, Thurston, Hodges, Inglis, Boyd, Tate and Slater – and wonder if come post Game I, the talk for NSW will be of dropping Pearce and his five eighth partner for Reynolds and Sutton.
They might bring back Brett Stewart, push Hayne to the wing or drop him altogether for Merritt, or maybe bring in Dugan.
If they go with an agile pack and lose the game, the talk will be that they should have gone with a big pack of forwards, or vice-versa.
Meanwhile the cool, calm Queenslanders, like assassins, will just reload for the kill shot and make it eight series in a row.
All I know is, by kick off time for Game I, like always, I’ll be 100 percent convinced that NSW are underdogs bound for glory, but only one thing is 100 percent sure: there will definitely be no Puffy Dogs left by half-time. Go the Blues!