Brilliant halfback and Canterbury great Steve Mortimer represented NSW in nine Origin matches from 1982-85, captaining his state three times and famously leading the Blues to their maiden series triumph in 1985. Widely credited with instigating NSW’s passion for Origin football, ‘Turvey’ Mortimer is an icon of 1980s interstate Rugby League competition.
As told to Commentary Box Sports Editor-in-Chief Will Evans for his 2013 book, A History of State of Origin (Slattery Media Group).
I thought (the Origin concept) was fantastic. To see Arthur Beetson – who was well overweight and past his best – don that Maroon jumper in 1980, and to see them win the first two one-off games. I think it was great for the game because if any Queenslander prior to that had talent they had to come to Sydney.
I don’t think there was (an air of expectancy) on the NSW side in 1982 when I debuted, because of those first two games. It’s a mental thing; we had a good team, I think we played quite well – won one game and lost two. You couldn’t have got a better trial to pick an Australian team, and that’s what it was back in those days. I remember coming up (to Brisbane), there was about 38,000 Queenslanders at Lang Park and it was just a great feeling.
(The 1983 decider) was pretty embarrassing – but you know what? Some players are on, some players are off at the time; you can’t do much about that. But I still – even after ’83 – had sincerity in myself that the best was yet to come for the Blues.
Yes there was competition – obviously with me and Peter Sterling, but as a kid that grew up in the country, I was always intense about wanting to be in a NSW State of Origin series win before I retired. I was picked for the first game in ’84 and Sterlo was on the bench, Ray Price was the captain. I had to pull out with a hamstring; as it was NSW got beaten and I came into the second game and we lost that as well. And then the third game … we had about seven or eight NSW players pull out, Ray Price had retired (from representative duty).
So all of a sudden a bunch of ‘Neville Nobodies’ came in – my brother Chris, Brian Johnston, ‘Slippery’ Morris was on the wing, Mick Potter, Chris Walsh. We had this team of ‘Neville Nobodies,’ and I was given the captaincy because Pricey wasn’t there. I just – because of all my experiences in the past – took it upon myself; I cared for all the players, I would joke with all the players, I would have sincere one-on-one talks with all the players.
We won up in Brisbane, and we won it well, 22-12. It wasn’t a big crowd that day – it was a given that Queensland were going to win that game. I was just so intense and so passionate – and all my other players were – that we would work as one, and we would win this one. And that’s what we did. So that set the wheels in motion for ’85. What did I get for (man-of-the-match)? Probably a shake of the hand and a $300 gift voucher! A victory in (a game) like that is worth more than money.
In 1985 I was selected as captain and halfback, and we had a lot of the players (from 1984). We won the first game up there 18-2, Michael O’Connor was on the wing and scored all 18 points on debut, we were a very close team. That was the time when I stopped the bus outside the Caxton (Street Hotel) and waited – they were all laughing and doing this (flipping the bird) in Maroon jerseys and I said to the bus driver, ‘Stop the bus.’ I said ‘Boys, just have a look at this for a moment.’ They started booing and horns were beeping, the traffic stopped – I said ‘Right, this is about us. Have a look at their faces. This is the way we’re going to come back, and we’re going to stick it up ’em.’
The second game at the SCG, we were all prepared, we went toe-to-toe, Queensland went in front, we got back…mate, we were just close – as ‘Fatty’ Vautin said as a compliment ‘Turvey, you did a Queensland on Queensland.’ So when we won that one, it was time to retire. I kissed the ground, thanked the bloke above. I retired from representative football and decided to focus on my (club) football. I thought ‘well, it can’t get much better than this, we’ve already won.’ I know we could’ve got a 3-0 win, but 2-1 is still a win. It was a great way to go out.
— The81stMinute (@The81stMinute) May 30, 2016
When I first played for NSW it was 1977, when Arthur Beetson was in the team, Ray Higgs, John Ribot – we got up here and played Queensland. And my game … I got replaced by Tom Raudonikis. Somehow we won; Tommy put a blue on and we won. I’ll never forget coming off to 38,000 Queenslanders, and thinking ‘I’ll be back here one day.’ I got the opportunity to do that, but the decider (game two, 1985) was in Sydney, I kissed the ground. I also thought of my father – he was a policeman, he didn’t have much money. He got some money to fly to Sydney from Wagga, and up to Brisbane in 1977 and I couldn’t see dad after that game. He had to fly back to Sydney and then back to Wagga – and (for me) it was a failure. I mention all that because I transferred all of that into a winning time (1985) – a very special time for me, for my teammates, and for the state of NSW.
Origin wasn’t just passion – it was reality, and humility. My early days, there was a bit of arrogance when you played in the (residency-based) NSW team. Arthur Beetson, he was just a terrific bloke (in the NSW camp), but other blokes – I had to introduce myself to them as opposed to (the more experienced players) introducing themselves to me. It was about passion, it was about humility, it was about getting to know each other. Because we had the skills, we had the ability to put all this together to get the goal that we wanted, which was to win a game and a series. So it was reality, it was sincerity, it was helping each other – it was as simple as that.
The first time that I’ve seen a NSW crowd be emotional was the night that we won the series. I think it cheered a lot of NSW people, it definitely cheered the boys. I remember saying to Benny Elias and Blocker (Steve Roach) before the game ‘you know what, in 25 years time – we win this, we can look back, we can smile, we can hug each other’ and we do that all time. I think I brought a lot of, as a captain, for want of a better word – it’s not so much intimacy, but I brought a lot of trust and care and respect and humility into our team, which were the ingredients for then using our skills.
‘Blocker’ Roach, when I kissed the ground, he came along and picked me up! My brother Chris; Brett Kenny was a class act, Stevie Ella, ‘Chicka’ Ferguson – I could go through the whole team – Garry Jack, Eric Grothe. We were so close. I wasn’t more close to this bloke than that bloke, but ‘Blocker,’ Pat Jarvis, Benny Elias – cheeky bastard as he was, he was the highest maintenance for me as a captain; Peter Wynn, Noel Cleal, Wayne Pearce. I’d have to say – I only captained NSW three times, and those three teams we played in, in ’84 and two in ’85 – we were all close together. Sorry, I know it sounds like a politician, but we were – we cared for each other mate.
I played with my brother Peter (for NSW) before Origin came, in ’79, then I played with my brother Chris – and I know one thing: Mal Meninga and Gene Miles, and even ‘Choppy’ Close, they all had the shits because Chris used to annoy them and stick it up ’em. He was a tough bugger. I feel very proud and blessed to have played with Chris in what is the jewel in the crown of the greatest game of all.
The irony is Terry Fearnley was the coach when I first played for NSW and made the decision to take me off. But Terry Fearnely – he doesn’t coach players, he manages them. He looked at our strength, then he looked at the strength of the Queenslanders. And we knew the strength of Wally Lewis was kicking the ball, throwing magnificent passes. So we’d go up on ‘Chicken George’ (Meninga) and ‘Choppy’ (Close) or ‘Geno’ (Miles), so we’d invite Wally to run so we could tackle him, and that was it – even though it was hard to tackle him, it was a lot more effective than trying to knock him and then he gets the ball away.
My toughest opponents in Origin – do you know what? If you’re not tough, you don’t have a place in the game. But Mal Meninga – hard, tough; Gene Miles was hard and tough, Wally Lewis. Mark Murray – a pest he was! Mark and I get on very well, but he was a bastard – (he was) about destabilising the opposition. The second-rowers too, I couldn’t pick out one … every Queenslander, how can you single one out? (Rohan) Hancock, he was tough; Dave Brown, (Bob) Lindner, (Ian) French, ‘Turtle’ (Greg Conescu) – I couldn’t say who the hardest player was; as a unit and a team, it was so bloody hard playing against them. Queensland’s stability – and humility – were factors for ‘their’ success.
When it came to Origin time, back in my day Lang Park was always packed – they love their Rugby League. To this day I still say they should be putting another couple of teams in Queensland. Because we’ve got a lot to thank Queensland for, for the way they love the game. What Origin has done is show how much Queensland is an important factor in the growth of Rugby League across Australia. Shane Webcke, he said the way I talk, ‘There’s gotta be some Queenslander in you or something.’ I said: ‘No mate, what I am is a country boy, just like you, we’re the same.’
Origin is the jewel in the crown, and the beautiful thing is – the AFL say they’re the national game, and yes, they are – but two-thirds of the population live in NSW and Queensland. The great thing is we’re not really established in another state, although we’ve got a great Melbourne Storm team – but it’s a one-on-one. Like with a boxer, two boxers – one’s going to win. All the Victorians watch it (Origin) now, and all go for Queensland or whatever. But it’s a great opportunity to market and farm our game out to other states in Australia.
I don’t really stick my nose in (these days). I do State of Origin talks and all that, but Ricky Stuart through Bobby Fulton – he was a bit instigator in that – he got all the players from the 1985 team to come in and present the jerseys. It was wonderful. Thats what Queensland do; we’re starting to be a lot more personable. It’s like a business – Queensland is like a small to medium firm or business, very personable. NSW: bigger population – it’s like a corporate business. We’ve got to find personable. We’re beginning to find that. We’re there for each other. Laurie Daley – I might have a different opinion to him on a certain player. But Laurie’s our coach, this is who he wants – he’s got our 100 per cent support. And that’s what Queensland have done so well over the years, including the emerging stars (program) Wayne Bennett (brought in) 10 years ago. As a New South Welshman, I am so passionate. But looking at the bigger perspective, I’m so fond of Queensland being a leader in growing our game into the most preferred game in Australasia.