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Opinion

Who had the bigger impact on Origin - Kenny or Lewis?

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Roar Guru
28th May, 2022
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In many discussions over the years, including in a recently article of mine right here, there have been spirited arguments put forward for the supremacy of Wally “The King” Lewis or Brett “Bert” Kenny in State of Origin during its formative years of the 1980s.

So, let’s have a look.

Man of the match awards – verdict: The King

Wally Lewis received eight man of the match awards from 31 matches. The Lewis legend was forged between 1982 and 1984 when he won five awards from six matches. This sequence of awards also never included a dead rubber:

1982 – Game 3 decider
1983 – Game 1 opener and Game 3 decider
1984 – Game 1 opener and Game 2 clincher

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Lewis’ other three awards were also all in ‘live’ matches:

1985 – Game 2 leveller
1989 – Game 2 clincher
1991 – Game 1 opener

Brett Kenny received a single man of the match award in his 17 appearances, a dead rubber victory in 1986 to complete the first clean sweep. It was his scrum base partner Peter Sterling who leads NSW with four awards.

Captaincy – verdict: The King

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Lewis captained Queensland a record 30 times from his 31 matches – his very first match was under the legendary Arthur Beetson. Kenny never captained NSW.

Lewis as captain was also very much the maestro, leading the team around the field like supercharged marionettes. Kenny tended to leave that to his halfbacks, whether it was Steve Mortimer or Sterling.

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Winning record – verdict: The King

Lewis has a 61.3 per cent winning record in Origin to Kenny’s 47.1 per cent. Lewis won eight Origin series and lost two (1985 and 1986), plus the two single-game victories in 1980 and 1981. Kenny won two series from six attempts.

Head to Head – verdict: Bert when five-eighth, with a healthy dose of Sterlo

The overall head to head is Lewis’ nine to Kenny’s eight. This also means that Lewis’ head to head against sides that did not include Kenny is ten wins from 14 matches. It seems that Kenny did have an effect.

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As opposing five-eighths, the record is eight to four in Kenny’s favour as he was the pivot when NSW won in 1985 and achieved a clean sweep in 1986. Kenny never won a single Origin match from centre in four attempts. He also lost his first-ever Origin in 1982 from the bench.

I believe team strength and continuity had a massive effect here. It was not just Kenny, although he was a key component. For five of Kenny’s eight wins, his halves partner was Peter Sterling. This also equates to five of Sterling’s six wins. Sterling was man of the match in two of the matches that the pair played together.

Peter Sterling

Peter Sterling (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

There was a synergy between these two that was possibly the greatest seen at club level, at least in my time.

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Maybe the NSW selectors could have noted this record and built on it, maybe Lewis in 1983 and 1984 would have still been too good. Who knows? The available evidence suggests the Kenny-Sterling combination, possibly with a dose of Steve Ella and Eric Grothe, may have given Queensland a real fright in 1983 and 1984.

Team strength – verdict: Even

NSW were favourites with the bookies for almost every Origin through to 1989. Their side were often packed with stars and it was extremely rare for the Maroons to have even close to equal representation in the national side, aside from one instance quickly squashed by Terry Fearnley.

However, no matter how many great NSW players were watching at home, unable to crack the side, only 13 at a time could actually take the field. Queensland could generally field a top-shelf backline and a willing pack and they took orders from the game’s greatest general. It is often forgotten now that the Queensland ‘greats’ of the 1980s were only anointed as such in hindsight.

It was a rare New South Welshman during the ’80s who lamented that their side had the lesser quality. That did change in 1988 and especially 1989 when Queensland were obviously superior and five of Lewis’ 19 wins were from those two series.

Let’s see how the sides stacked up during the overlapping careers of Kenny and Lewis.

1982

Kenny played Game 2 from the bench and Game 3 at five-eighth. Lewis’ side won both matches, with The King scoring a try and winning man of the match in the decider.

Queensland could boast household names such as Lewis, Mark Murray, Mal Meninga (Game 3 only) and Gene Miles (but on debut in Game 2). This, however, was rounded out by players such as Graham Quinn, Brad Backer, Norm Carr, Paul Khan and John Dowling.

Mal Meninga

Mal Meninga (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

NSW could boast legends Steve Rogers (Game 2), Mick Cronin (Game 3), Steve Mortimer, Ray Price, Les Boyd (Game 3) and Craig Young, but also had Ziggy Niszczot, Alan Thompson, Phil Duke, Paul Merlo and John Coveney.

1983

Two wins for Queensland and two man of the match awards for Lewis. Kenny played one game at centre and two at pivot after it was finally realised that Alan Thompson was not the answer.

The Maroons had their usual stars and added Paul Vautin, Wally-Fullerton Smith and Bryan Neibling to the back row. Their usual no-name wingers were for this series Terry Butler and Steve Stacey, and their front row was hardly Hall of Fame: Darryl Brohman, Dave Brown and Brad Tessman.

The Blues added Wayne Pearce to their forwards, producing a high quality back row of Ray Price, Pearce and Les Boyd. Eric Grothe was on the wing, but they failed to overpower the Queensland front row with Geoff Bugden and Geoff Gerard.

In Game 2, they picked six Parramatta players in their backline and won, but then lost Grothe and Sterling (I assume to injury – surely they didn’t drop them!). In all, NSW made five changes for Game 3 to a winning side and gifted the series to Queensland.

1984

This series saw another 2-1 victory to Queensland and another two man of the match awards to peak Wally Lewis.

It also saw another go for Alan Thompson with Kenny shunted to the centres. Rather than correct that error for Game 2, they brought in Terry Lamb and left Kenny on the edge. Kenny came back to five-eighth to win the dead rubber.

The Queensland backline for Game 1 was Colin Scott, Kerry Boustead, Meninga, Miles, Chris Close, Lewis and Murray. Truly great. They also had Greg Dowling and Bob Lindner added to their forward pack. This was an all-time great side. NSW picked many of the great Parramatta players, plus Garry Jack, Wayne Pearce and Steve Roach from Balmain. But they also picked Rex Wright, Ross Conlon and Chris Walsh.

Still, the Blues’ Game 2 side was very formidable indeed: Jack, Grothe, Kenny, Andrew Farrar, Conlon, Lamb, Mortimer, Price, Pearce, Noel Cleal, Peter Tunks, Royce Simmons and Steve Roach. No gimmes there.

1985

2-1 to the Blues. Mortimer celebrates.

NSW added some real quality here. I believe the addition of Michael O’Connor was maybe the most influential change. Not only was he a superstar and a nerveless goal kicker, it removed the temptation from the selectors to ever put Kenny in the centres again.

The other addition that had a huge effect was Ben Elias. A spine of Elias, Mortimer and Kenny was too much for Queensland to handle, even though they had their usual suspects playing, plus adding Dale Shearer. The dead rubber win was with an injured Mortimer replaced by Des Hasler.

Sorry, Des, but you were a downgrade.

1986

This was NSW’s high water mark at Origin level in the 1980s.

The Kenny-Sterling combination finally played an entire series, but just as importantly so did most of the team – Chris Mortimer, Michael O’Connor and Gary Jack established combinations in attack and defence. Just as importantly the same starting pack played the whole series: Pearce, Cleal, Steve Folkes, Peter Tunks, Simmons and Roach. Great pack that.

Queensland debuted Gary Belcher; their usual obscure winger was Les Kiss. Their forward pack was less experienced and intimidating than previous years, including Brad Tessman, Cavill Heugh, Ian French, Darryl Brohman and Gavin Jones.

1987

Queensland came back to win the decider after, wait for it, Kenny was moved to centre.

Brett Kenny speaks with Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

This time undoubted great Cliff Lyons took Kenny’s place, but he was never going to gel sufficiently with Sterling to get the job done. The other significant difference was the absence of Michael O’Connor, although Kenny and Andrew Ettingshausen was a handy centre pairing! The forward pack lost some crunch without Steve Roach (replaced by Pat Jarvis). David Boyle and Phil Daley also got a run.

The other main difference between this series and the 1985 and 1986 encounters was the debut of the most unlikely Origin superstar, four foot tall rookie from Ipswich, Allan Langer, who played all three games. The other new starter was the underrated Peter Jackson, the roll forward of Martin Bella and the rib-shattering Trevor Gillmeister.

In general, Queensland had a better pack this year with Bob Lindner, Paul Vautin and Greg Dowling being injury-free.
So, what does all that tell us? Probably that a good pack is as important as anything else when winning Origin matches and that when NSW stick to their choices, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Did Lewis or Kenny have the better teams around them? I’d say both, they tended to win with the better teams and lose when their teammates were less capable. What a surprise!

Personal performance – verdict: Lewis by a nose

This is hard to judge without going and watching each player’s Origin career in full. As much as I would like to, and it has been raining a lot in Brisbane, I’m going to have to go off statistics.

Tries and try assists

Lewis scored just over a try every five games, for Kenny it was just two across 17 matches, so Lewis was the try scorer. For try assists it was Lewis 0.54 vs. Kenny 0.53, so not a struck match between them.

Linebreaks

Lewis 0.68, Kenny 0.82. Slight advantage to Kenny, but as a centre for part of his career, it makes sense. Incidentally, Michael O’Conner has comfortably more than either of them.

Line break assists

Lewis 1.35, Kenny 0.82. So advantage Lewis in setting up his supports. His 42 career line break assists is still ten clear of Johnathan Thurston as the most in Origin.

Average runs and run metres

Lewis ten runs for 69 metres, Kenny 9.9 for 68.

Tackle busts

Lewis 3.0, Kenny 3.8. This adds to the narrative of Kenny as the more dangerous ball runner when you factor in line breaks above.

Offloads

Lewis 3, Kenny 2.5. Lewis was more of a physical presence, so this makes sense. Factor in his line break and try assists and Lewis was the better creator of opportunities for others and his 93 career Origin offloads is still a record.

Kicks and kick metres

Lewis has an obvious advantage here: ten kicks per game, averaging 338 kick metres. Kenny kicked just over once per game. Lewis also forced 18 dropouts (0.58 per game) versus Kenny’s four (0.23 per game).

Wally Lewis brings the ball up for Queensland.

(Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

So, what does that tell us? Pretty much what we already know. They were both super dangerous in attack, with Kenny the better runner and Lewis the better at putting his supports away. The only thing that doesn’t support this narrative is actual tries scored.

Lewis was lethal from 5 to 10 metres out. The other part is the organising and kicking games. Lewis and Kenny obviously had different roles, but The King was certainly a brilliant long and short kicker. He still holds the Origin record for most career kick metres.

Aura

Lewis has still played more matches than any single NSW player.

He has the most famous moustache in the business (with apologies to Martin Bella). His highlights reel is trotted out every single year: that try in 1989, that tackle of Michael O’Connor in 1987, that pre-meditated verbal assault on Mark Geyer in 1991, that sin bin leading to a shower of cans in 1988, that bear hug of little Alfie Langer in 1980-something, that kick off the cross bar for Dish-Head Dowling in the rain in 1984.

Kenny does not have quite the same highlights reel or aura in Origin, like he certainly does for Parramatta with his consecutive grand final try-scoring feats. If you think NSW Origin in the 1980s, you think about Steve Mortimer with his arms raised in ecstasy, Michael O’Connor kicking from the sideline in blinding rain, Mick Cronin copping one from Artie Beetson, Noel Cleal and his two-metre drop out and Peter Sterling getting stuck in the banner while running onto the field in California in 1987.

I’m sure you have many Kenny highlights to discuss in the Origin arena and maybe I just can’t see them with my Maroon goggles on.

Overall verdict

There is none, really. It’s always going to be The King for me with eight series wins, and eight man of the match awards and a 30-game captaincy career. However, the argument can be made that Brett Kenny, alongside Peter Sterling and Michael O’Connor, had the potential to influence Origin in a similar way.

It does seem plain that Lewis’ most dominant period coincided with a disjointed NSW selection policy that was unstable, including not sticking with Kenny as part of a settled halves combination.

NSW got their act together in the mid-1980s with a settled backline core of Gary Jack, Michael O’Connor, Brett Kenny and Steve Mortimer or Peter Sterling. They also moved on from their last generation of hookers to more creative dummy halves and played a settled group of forwards.

Finally the tide came back in for Queensland from 1987 with the introduction of an all-time great half to match the NSW rivals, together with the decline of Kenny, Sterling and Mortimer.

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