Chris ‘Choppy’ Close famously won man-of-the-match honours in the first two one-off State of Origin matches in 1980-81. The rugged, dynamic centre was a wholehearted and fiery competitor in nine Origin appearances for Queensland, and was involved in many of the concept’s iconic moments – both on and off the ball. Close became a long-serving team manager for the Maroons from the mid-1990s, while he remains one of Queensland Rugby League’s most vocal and unapologetically passionate figures, embodying the Origin spirit like few others.
As told to Commentary Box Sports Editor-in-Chief Will Evans for his 2013 book, A History of State of Origin (Slattery Media Group).
My father took me to Lang Park. I was about 15 or 16, from Beaudesert, and I watched my first interstate game live – Queensland played OK actually. Those were the days of Geoff Richardson, in that era, and they didn’t play too badly. So it was a good night, and certainly one that I remember. I can also remember that Mick Cronin played very well that night for NSW – and then I marked Mick in my first game for Queensland; he was a player I had a great deal of respect for.
(The Origin concept) was something that we were a little unsure of. We weren’t going that well as a state, and we didn’t know how it would pan out – we didn’t know if the boys coming up from down south (to play for Queensland) were going to be serious. So we had a lot of questions we needed to answer. I’m pleased to say John McDonald, the coach, got us together and ‘Artie’ (Beetson) walked in as the captain, and we had the first training session at Corbett Park, at Brothers in Brisbane. ‘Artie’ got the group together in a circle and introduced himself; ‘Artie’ was a very imposing man, a big man – 122 kilos and six foot three or four – and for those of us who were 20, 21 and had never met him before, even standing in his company was pretty overwhelming.
When he spoke he really got your attention because he was very, very focussed in what he said. He looked at everybody there and said: “These guys have got two arms, two legs, two eyes and an arsehole. If you don’t think you can beat them you may as well fuck off. Because I didn’t come up here not to win.” That was really the concrete or the glue, mate, that stuck the 15 guys together in one hit, in one statement, in one moment in time. I look at that and think of the enormity of that, and the enormity of what he said, the enormity of the occasion – from a Rugby League point of view – it was huge, huge for Queensland. Because State of Origin, really, was part of a coming of age for Queensland. It wasn’t long after that they held the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, and all of sudden Queensland had a footy team that could match it. There were a lot of positives to come out of that game.
I honestly made a decision that, after Arthur made his speech at that training run, he was right. There was no reason why we couldn’t compete. The only thing between us and them was our willingness to perform. The effort we were willing to give. Whether or not we were prepared to die for the jumper we wore. And I made the decision that I was. So in everything I did in that game – and hopefully from then on – I gave everything I had. It was important for me to win – for our state, for our family, for my friends and for myself. So I didn’t want to let Arthur down, and during the game I watched the way he led us. I mean, he was 35 years of age playing in the toughest arena in the world and probably had no right to be there to a certain extent from an age point of view. But he ripped and tore into them without any mercy or fear for himself, and something just lit up inside of me. It was just a wonderful night for Queensland and for me and for everyone in Rugby League.
(My try) was very surprising really – I’ve never not backed myself, but under the circumstances that prevailed in that game … I remember the ball came along the backline, and it got to Mal (Meninga) and I had a wall of people in front of me. Mal passed it, and I thought under my breath, ‘what the fuck?’ Instinct took over and I immediately went back into the middle of the field … and the bigger the gap started to become. I could get off the mark (back then) – sustaining it over a hundred metres was always an issue, but over 40 I could go. So I spotted half a gap and I took off and all of a sudden I’m through the other side with (NSW fullback) Graham Eadie – possibly at that stage the toughest and best fullback in Rugby League. I thought, ‘he hits hard … I’m getting out of the road’, so I really just took off on a wide arc, and I think it took him by surprise, the pace that I had up by the time I got him and he was caught a bit flat-footed. He had to dive and I don’t think he even touched me.
(Eric Grothe) didn’t react much at all (to the back-hander in 1981) – he was knocked out. I make no bones about what I did, and if the same situation presented itself tomorrow I’d do exactly the same thing. Eric knows that, and Eric and I have discussed it on a few occasions. Interestingly enough, a few years ago at a luncheon on an Origin day in Brisbane, Eric and I shared the stage as guest speakers, and Eric openly admitted that he held on to (Colin Scott’s) legs and that it was a ploy to stop him getting up to play the ball. I sensed that when I got there and I said ‘let him go’ – he didn’t, so I grabbed him by the hair, pulled his head back, but he snapped back into the position he had (on Scott). So the second time … I whacked him, fair in the forehead as hard as I could. The rest is history – I gave him a shove and he rolled over. Scotty got up and played the ball and I scored.
(When I moved to Manly) we didn’t hold anything back against each other and that’s why Origin still is what it is today – as much as the hierarchy are trying to change the face of it – at the end of the day, it was state against state, mate against mate: no holds barred. Arthur set the tone for that in the very first game. Because of that, it’s become the spectacle and the popular cash cow it has for the NRL.
I don’t know what it was, but I always found myself in the position of making a beeline for (Ray Price) in Origin (brawls) – I don’t know how keen he was on making a beeline for me, but I used to search him out like an Exocet missile. I had a particular dislike for the way he played. I admired him and I respected him, but there were some things that he did that I thought were off the mark. So whenever there was an opportunity to let things rip, I always had a look to see where he was.
(Queensland was) blessed with a group of players – very much like it is now – that came together for a period of time that were, without trying to sound big-headed, a little bit above average. And they all managed to find their way into the team at the same time, led by Arthur Beetson in the most heroic and courageous way; that’s what laid the platform for us I think.
I don’t think bitter could describe how I felt (when I was dropped from the Test team in 1985 by Australian and NSW coach Terry Fearnley). I was shattered. I was absolutely devastated. I was blindsided by the coach … and it robbed me of a significant opportunity that I’ve never forgotten. There was some angst released (in the subsequent third Origin match) there’s no doubt about that. We certainly blew the valve off it – not only myself, but the others that were involved in the same set of circumstances. I’ve heard a million times the coach and certain players trying to justify (the Test sackings) but there no was justification. It was a plot and a ploy – and it backfired on (Fearnley and NSW).
Mick Cronin was my toughest opponent, he was made of steel. I nominated at halftime one night that I was going out in the second half – not an Origin game, but an interstate game – that he was going to being leaving the field after I’d finished with him. The first opportunity I had to achieve that, he got the ball and ran straight at me and I ran straight at him with everything I had. I dropped my shoulder, and the next thing the back of my head had hit the ground and he stood on my chest as he ran over the top of me. I thought I’d met the Bondi express, no wonder he’d played so many games for Australia and NSW! He was an outstandingly tough prospect.
Look, I’m not a good flier. And I reckon it stemmed from the trauma that I suffered whilst Wally (Lewis) drove that team bus. He had a lot of us petrified to the pissing pants stage – and he did it with the greatest of ease. He was as a good a driver as he was a player, thankfully, otherwise we’d all be dead. I could give you a chapter on his driving alone – the number of incidents, near misses and fun that he performed in that vehicle; and some of the ideas that he came up with to get a laugh out of us … and don’t ever think that any of them have been embellished – they’re all true.
— The81stMinute (@The81stMinute) May 30, 2016
Apart from 1980, there wasn’t a great deal of difference between what Origin has meant to me as a player and team manager. I still had that passionate desire for Queensland to be the number one team (when I became manager) … I don’t accept anything less. What a privilege to look back and say that you were there for those key moments (like Mark Coyne’s try in 1994). I still consider that I was so lucky to have that opportunity.
(The 1995 series upset) was a lot more calculating than you’d think. Again, it was the right group of people under the right set of circumstances at the right time with the right coach. ‘Fatty’ (Vautin) did a great job that year, he certainly galvanised the team from the very first meeting we had. He made those players feel like they weren’t second-rate; the media had branded them and the public had branded them – they’d been castigated and degraded from one end of the state to the other. They wiped the smirk off everybody’s face.
State of Origin 2015: Chris Close on his colourful Origin history and why he will be watching Game One alone http://t.co/h2QUSoxImD
— Rhys O’Neill (@Rhys_ONeill_) May 23, 2015
(My passion for Origin) is too long to summarise mate. But it’s continual. (NSW) still don’t get it. They still don’t rate us. We’ve just won seven series, they’ve won one game (the 2013 series opener) – and we couldn’t have played any worse in that, and all of a sudden they’re the kings of the castle again. Just where we want them.
I haven’t been involved at an official level right through the victorious streak, I haven’t been part of it – which is probably a bit of indication of why they’re winning so much, getting all the deadwood out of the pile! Unofficially, I’ve just taken myself in and out whenever I feel like it, and so far nobody has tried to stop me. Hopefully I’ve earned that privilege, and I certainly respect it and I enjoy it.
People wake up a lot differently from an Origin victory in Queensland than they do in NSW – it means something to the public, it means that the kids go to school with the chests puffed out feeling happy, knowing that they’ve got a team that’s gone out and given everything they’ve got for them. Those things are important, collectively, for the state. It’s different. It’s not club football, there’s no other arena like it. You’re representing each and every individual that lives in Queensland – and you better be ready to do that, or you don’t count with me.
I’m seriously worried (the administrators) are going to sanitise the Origin arena too much, like with the kneejerk reaction to game one (of 2013, when Paul Gallen punched Nate Myles), which wasn’t really even worth worrying about. I think if they continue to pander to the public that don’t play the game and don’t understand the way you feel in those moments … you don’t feel violent, it’s not premeditated. There’s spur of the moment explosions that revolve around what you’re doing in that game – everybody’s expectations are prepared for that. It’s not like you’ve walked up the street and punched someone in the head. The athletes are ready for the punishment, and I don’t know of too many in 110 years – and I don’t know how many players have played in that time – that can honestly demonstrate serious damage from the old all-in brawl.