Despite a season plagued by concussion injuries and positional shifts, the Newcastle captain still took out the Dally M - but he has signalled…
If you grew up among a friendship circle like mine – where we played rugby league before school, during recess, then after school – then you understand the reverence State of Origin is afforded in many communities.
The Maroons in Queensland are demigods. Even from childhood, I wondered what it was that separated the gladiators that pulled on our State jersey from those hordes of us who merely dreamt about it.
Later, as someone who played rugby league at a community level for 30-plus years, I became well aware it’s a sport that attracts people with a broad range of life experiences, sometimes from the periphery.
When I ventured from mainstream sports journalism to working in communications for universities, I started to read more about things like risk-taking behaviour, the triangulation between mental health, crime and substance abuse, and child development theories.
I knew that among Queensland’s Origin cohort were many players who had experienced extreme environments in childhood. And I was equally convinced that there were others who had never told their full story.
I wanted to put it all on the table and produce a handbook that basically said: “Don’t be ashamed of what you’ve been through. These guys are our heroes, and collectively, they’ve been through many of the same issues, and more.”
I wanted to produce a work that was as accurate a historical record of every player’s life as exists elsewhere, but one that also painted a picture of Queensland society taking shape through the decades, and 221 kids who found a path to greatness, no matter what was thrown at them.
While each player in the book takes you on a different journey, here are 10 themes I found prominent as I pieced it all together:
As I commenced the project, I had the generalisation in my mind that many players would be derived from fathers who also excelled in sports.
What became more apparent was that many Queensland Origin players had mothers who were state and national representatives, played sport well into later life, or worked in the fitness industry.
Often the fathers were bog-standard community footballers who were active coaches and spent time with their sons teaching the finer points of the game.
Unfortunately, a pattern that is easy to see from the outset is that the rates of childhood trauma in the Maroons cohort are roughly double the normal national rate.
The number of Maroons who experienced the death, disability or imprisonment of a close family member, or experienced another major life-changing event before the age of 21 is frankly quite saddening.
My own un-scientific theory is that when you have death or other extremities to compare your own circumstance against, you will push yourself to limits others don’t know.
While it’s true some Maroons grew up in loving households, there is a quote from Wayne Bennett that says he has dealt with young men experiencing abandonment throughout most days of his career.
Among the Maroons are numerous players who were adopted, or who never felt they earned the love of a particular parent, and many who still don’t know the truth about different aspects of their family background.
Partly connected to the above point is the fact there are probably more than 30 Queensland Maroons players who walked into the Origin arena under a different name to which they were born (or should have been born).
While mothers remarrying and children adopting the name of their step-father is a common cause of this phenomenon, there are other more sinister force at play in some cases, stemming back to when slave labour brought about forced and indiscriminate changes to names.
Within the first six players in the book for Queensland you have a child whose mother was part of the Stolen Generation, an Indigenous teammate who has adopted by a white mother as a child and has been forever thankful, a kid from a white family who claimed large tracts of farmland, the son of a police officer, a South Sea Islander raised with conflicting emotions, and a boat-builder who worked in the same port where his teammate’s ancestors arrived to from Vanuatu.
Some truths in the book are jolting, but mostly the stories display how effective sport is in bringing all walks together.
Some places produce more great sportspeople than other places. It happens around the world. Over time researchers have been able to pinpoint why it is that cities and towns like Mackay, Roma, Beaudesert, Mount Isa etc bat well above their average when it comes to producing Origin stars.
Things like being thrown in the deep end against older combatants at a younger age, easy access to wide open spaces, and the likelihood of attracting a mentor who pumps up your confidence and supports you in the face of challenges are all factors that count heavily.
It’s no coincidence that Kevin Walters, Allan Langer, Andrew Gee and others come from a string of brothers who were all highly active in sports.
Mostly in the book, you’ll find it is the third or fourth boy who hits his straps, although on occasions – like Marty Bella – it is also the oldest child in a pack of gifted footballers who stands out.
The theory is that younger brothers will only copy the successful actions their older brothers put into place, and totally disregard those forays which do not bear fruit. Meanwhile, older children are more likely to try a greater number of options to achieve an outcome – even if they’ve already discovered how to do it.
A lot of people know Brent Tate and Steve Price are related as brothers-in-law. But if you scratch back far enough, you’ll also find Tate is related to Darren Lockyer, Casey McGuire and Daly Cherry-Evans in a complex web.
There are other players among the Maroons who have suspected they are related for close to 50 years but never found answers to family secrets that would confirm it one way or the other.
If the same expansionist mindset of modern-day rugby league existed back in the 1980s, would we have seen a swathe of Maroons put up their hands to represent Germany?
The strong German influence in the settlement of Queensland shines through in the book, not only in obvious surnames like Niebling, Tessmann and Webcke, but in others not as immediately obvious like Daniel Wagon. Indeed, there is one triangle near Germany’s border with France from which a significant number of Maroons derive.
It’s clear to see that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) played a part in how many of the Maroons were raised. Although most didn’t speak about it at the time, the older generation of players who featured in the 1980s especially, were the product of fathers who had served in conflicts all around the world.
Only now is it no longer taboo to talk about what went on behind closed doors, back in an age where returned soldiers were expected to seamlessly reintegrate with society after witnessing horrors abroad.
Rugby league administrator and long-time sports journalist Robert Burgin set out to document the childhood influences of all 221 Queensland State of Origin players between 1980-2021 in his book The Maroons (published by Rockpool Publishing). Here he talks about how the project came to fruition, and the startling things he uncovered as the book reached completion.