Since Cameron Smith announced his retirement from representative rugby league, there has been much debate about where the champion hooker stands in the annals of State of Origin history.
According to sports writer Liam Hauser, Smith is the greatest State of Origin player ever.
As part of research for his book State of Origin: 35 Years, Hauser watched tapes of every State of Origin game since its inception in 1980. He says Smith is the best player to pull on a Maroons or Blues jersey.
“Having watched a replay of each State of Origin match I have been set the challenge of trying to choose my list of the top ten Origin players of all time,” Hauser says.
“It has been very difficult, largely because it is impossible to compare players who played in different positions and who played many years apart. There is no set criteria that could satisfy everyone, and there is no way that anyone’s list could be considered definitive or gospel.
“I wasn’t born when State of Origin began in 1980, meaning that I watched replays of many of the matches much later than when they occurred. It has always been hard to objectively analyse matches when watching them in a far removed time-frame from when they took place.
“After coming up with my top ten players for each state, I tried to work out an overall top 10. Longevity and success were the main two criteria that I used in order to work out my top 10. Each player needed to be in at least two series wins, hence the omission of the likes of Steve Mortimer and Peter Sterling.”
1. Cam Smith
The first to play 40 State of Origin matches, Cameron Smith deserves to be ranked number one. It requires a lot of durability and tenacity to play as much Origin football as Smith has, not to mention Test and club football as well.
From the time he racked up 39 tackles and scored a try in his Origin debut in Game 3 of 2003, Smith has consistently been the cornerstone of Queensland teams. A workhorse who tackles his heart out, Smith also makes decisive runs from dummy-half and can kick astutely.
He never goes missing and never even has quiet times as he is always looking to be involved. He has shown a rare ability to read a game and perceive things that one would think can only be observed from the sidelines.
He can also control the ruck speed and the tempo of a game: extremely rare abilities. Leads by example and is a masterful tactician. The complete player at the elite level.
2. Johnathan Thurston
Becoming recognised as one of the best – if not the best – players in rugby league history, Johnathan Thurston has also been a lynchpin of Queensland’s phenomenal success from 2006. Thurston has always been the player who the Maroons could turn to for inspiration, and rarely has he let them down.
Like Cameron Smith, Thurston has shown the ability to read a game as if he were watching it from the sidelines. Nippy, quick and always hard to shut down, Thurston has consistently shown an ability to lift when the chips are down as he probes and is often elusive.
Always wanting his hands on the ball, Thurston knows how to bamboozle opponents and set up tries or score himself, and pounce on a loose ball, no matter what the situation of the game. Also able to kick goals and field goals, Thurston is the ultimate competitor who refuses to consider defeat as an option.
3. Wally Lewis
Always destined to be considered the king of State of Origin, Wally Lewis has a bronze statue outside Suncorp Stadium. Many people might think he should always be named as the greatest Origin player, but I rank Smith and Thurston higher as they have exceeded Lewis’ deeds in some ways, particularly in terms of longevity and number of series wins.
He bowed out a winner from the arena in 1991, having played 30 Origin matches (plus the exhibition match in 1987) and claimed man of the match accolades a record eight times. An inspirational leader, his mere presence always made a huge difference, such was the aura about him.
4. Andrew Johns
Rated by some as the greatest rugby league player of all time, Andrew Johns was an automatic choice as best NSW Origin player. He had some of his best Origin games as halfback in 2002, 2003 and 2005, winning a man-of-the-match award in each of these series.
In terms of his leadership, kicking game, running the ball, setting up tries and occasionally scoring them, Johns was a star. He could also inflict some punishing tackles. His goal-kicking was wayward at times but history has shown that that has happened to most goal-kickers at Origin level.
5. Allan Langer
Longevity was something that made Allan Langer stand out in Origin football. From his Origin debut, Langer showed many great qualities as he was quick, elusive, threatening, and able to produce dangerous chip-kicks and grubber-kicks as well as high kicks.
He could turn a game with an individual piece of brilliance or set up teammates, and make opponents look dumbfounded. Langer was also strong in defence as he belied his size, and never shirked his task nor looked intimidated.
6. Darren Lockyer
Darren Lockyer retired as Origin’s most capped player with 36 appearances and although that figure has since been beaten, Lockyer’s longevity and durability remain impressive.
Consistently an excellent player at club and Test level, Lockyer had peaks and troughs at Origin level but still deserves to be ranked highly, having skippered Queensland 22 times and held aloft the Origin shield six times.
A brilliant attacking player with the ability to create something out of nothing, Lockyer could break through any defence to set up tries and score himself, while also having a fine kicking game.
7. Mal Meninga
Winning nine series out of ten (including eight straight) as coach was a staggering achievement for Mal Meninga, but it should not be forgotten that he was an all-time great player.
He was Origin’s leading pointscorer until Johnathan Thurston broke the record. A powerful runner in the centres, Meninga had a strong fend and was always a formidable presence as he could break the line and attract several defenders. He could also inflict bone-jarring tackles. The only thing that eluded him was a series win as captain.
8. Laurie Daley
Laurie Daley had a nervous start to Origin football as a 19-year-old in 1989 before coming of age in 1992.
Appointed captain, he subsequently led NSW to three consecutive series wins – something that the Blues had never achieved before.
Daley led by example when skipper, and was a most consistent player for NSW. With the ability to probe, draw an opponent, break through the defensive line and set up breaks for teammates, Daley was best suited to five-eighth although he sometimes played in the centres.
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9. Brett Kenny
Brett Kenny opposed Wally Lewis at five-eighth on 12 occasions in Origin football, with NSW winning eight of them. The influence that Kenny could have was never better exemplified than in 1986 as NSW won 3-0 for the first time.
If any player could be singled out as the difference between the two teams, it was Kenny. With dynamic footwork and the ability to swerve, Kenny could peel through gaps that seemingly didn’t exist.
Kenny could also kick effectively when called upon, and in defence he was no passenger as he could pressure his opponent. A genuine all-round classy player.
10 – Brad Fittler
NSW’s youngest Origin player at 18 years of age in 1990, Brad Fittler became NSW’s most capped player. Regardless of what position he played in and whether or not he was captain, Fittler was always a formidable presence.
His footwork and agility constantly worried the opposing defence and kept his opponents guessing as he could set up teammates or break the line himself. Very strong, Fittler could take on the line from close range and often score as a result.
Fittler was also strong in defence and had a reliable kicking game. Any team featuring Fittler was always a lot stronger with his presence.
Liam Hauser is also the author of The Great Grand Finals: Rugby League’s Greatest Contests and A Century of Cricket Tests.