Fiji-born, Redcliffe junior Petero Civoniceva broke into the Queensland side in 2001 during his fourth season of NRL football with the Brisbane Broncos. The front-row warhorse went on to become State of Origin’s most-capped forward (33 appearances), oldest representative (36 years and 74 days), and the first player to feature in 12 consecutive series – of which he won eight and drew one. The inspirational Civoniceva ranks among the NRL era’s most respected and admired figures, and as one of the finest and most durable props of all time.
As told to Commentary Box Sports Editor-in-Chief Will Evans for his 2013 book, A History of State of Origin (Slattery Media Group).
Origin was such a huge part of my childhood. Rugby League, and football in general – my dad played rugby union, club rugby through the late-’70s and early-’80s. Growing up in a football household, there was always that attraction to both codes – rugby union obviously, and then Rugby League as I went to primary school, a state school, where League was the number one game. Origin was such a huge part of my calendar. For every kid I guess growing up in Queensland, those three games. Really special memories.
Like all kids growing up in Queensland, it’s your dream to play Origin, to wear the Queensland jersey. I remember with schoolboy rep teams, just the aura of that big ‘Q’ on the kids’ sports bags – if you were lucky enough to make those teams – it was a huge attraction. To want to make it for Queensland, because you can emulate your State of Origin heroes. For me, I never could realise that dream of playing rep football at (primary) school level; it wasn’t until later on, during my high school years, that I got to play for Queensland. But that was always the dream, to one day play Origin football for Queensland.
(The 2001 series) was a crunch time for Queensland Rugby League after (the 3-0 loss) the year before. There was a huge cleanout of Origin personnel, names that had been there for quite a number of years. The Queensland selectors and Wayne Bennett wanted to head in a new direction and I was fortunate enough to be one of those debutants. There was just so much excitement within the group. Obviously we were very nervous at the prospect of … you know, we were stepping into something very special, and that aura – talking about when I was a kid – the Queensland jersey had was certainly magnified now that I was there. It was a dream come true.
There was a huge expectation on (the 2001) team to keep State of Origin football alive from the Queensland side of things; there was so much talk in the media that if this side was to lose, Origin was dead. So there was certainly a lot of pressure to play well and to do Queensland proud.
Having so many Broncos teammates and Wayne Bennett in the side most definitely eased that burden somewhat. But again, I realised I was stepping into something much bigger than what I was used to. I had a couple of years playing for the Broncos under my belt by then, but to play Origin football was a totally different kettle of fish. That made it a little easier, having that familiarity of my Broncos teammates and Wayne Bennett alongside me.
I just remember the preparation – we had a great week, and just that enthusiasm with having new personnel within the Queensland team. We were all young blokes at the time, and we brought that enthusiasm and energy to the side. And I guess that’s what got us that great win; we played fast and we played tough, but I’ll never forget that moment of … the satisfaction that (despite) the risk of picking so many debutants, we were certainly worth it.
Alfie (Langer) returning for the decider was such a huge boost of confidence. He was a hero to all of us; we’d all grown up watching Origin and worshipping Alfie. Again, I was lucky enough to have had a year or two playing with Alfie before he left for England, so I knew exactly what he’d bring to the team. We’d lost Gorden Tallis before that third game and obviously that was a huge void left in the team, but for Alfie to come back … I’ll never forget the moment when we assembled at the ’Gabba cricket ground, where the QRL office used to be. We were about to board the bus, and they said ‘We’ve got to wait for one more person,’ and a yellow cab pulled up and rolled into the driveway. And out steps Alfie. I think all of us – we didn’t know what was going on. That’s how they broke it to us, no one knew. He stepped out of the cab, and it was like a sense of relief that he’d returned. Because obviously we were under a lot of pressure to win the series, but as soon he stepped out of the cab it was like ‘We’re going to be alright here.’ And the rest is history. He went on to play one of the great Origin games and secure the series for us.
In the years after that, we were up against a red-hot New South Wales side – they were a star-studded team. Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler, and host of players that had all played for Australia; that was a bit of a golden era for them. They had a very good football team and for us, we would come close but not close enough. I guess it was that class that helped them make it a few lean years for us. I think, too, it’s one of those things – internally the confidence was down, having suffered a few losses, it was tough to make ground on that. But you look back on those years now, I’ve been mindful that it didn’t always used to be this good – there were some very tough and testing years.
For (myself, Darren Lockyer and Steve Price) as senior players, I guess that leadership role was our responsibility, and after the loss in that first game in 2006 there was a lot of question about whether this Queensland team was worthy of wearing the jersey, firstly, and also whether we were past it, whether we were too old. Maybe it was time to look at other players to replace us. A lot of the criticism from outside Queensland you could expect, but with that loss came some criticism from within Queensland – by the Queensland media. And certainly, for us all, we took it very personally. Mal (Meninga) spoke to us before game two and basically said to us that we really needed to win this game, because he couldn’t guarantee us selection for game three if we were to lose. So, again, it was something that we took personally, but we had a discussion about what we needed to do in game two – luckily, it all worked out in the end.
Winning that series (in 2006) was a real turning point for Queensland footy, because I think the personnel that we had – in that first loss, we only lost by a field goal from Brett Finch. And although it was a hard defeat, we knew that we weren’t too far off the money. Having guys like Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis who debuted that year, and a host of other young guys – Nate Myles, Sam Thaiday – that we had the makings of really, really strong squad. So I think that gave us confidence moving into game two and game three.
I was really fortunate – I got to play with Gorden Tallis and Shane Webcke, and a host of other great front-rowers when I was starting out playing for Queensland. So I guess it’s just natural that when you become a senior player, that’s the expectation on your shoulders, to show the way for the young guys coming through. It was never a matter of having to mentor Matt Scott, Dave Shillington and Ben Hannant too much – they were great players in their own right. Really, they didn’t need too much motivation to play well for Queensland, so I was really lucky in that way; but all I could do, I guess, was lead by example and try and play the best football I could.
The 2012 series, I probably needed a little bit of convincing to play. Obviously it’s a huge honour to play for Queensland, but I had a slow start to the season coming back from pectoral surgery and I thought that might have hampered my role within the team. But I had a great chat with Mal, and he made me confident that if I put that jersey on, I’d be a big part of the team. So that was enough to get me back out there. But that was always something, from 2006 onwards, when you face that criticism you continually want to show everyone and prove to people that there was still good football left in me.
(The 2012 decider) was a fantastic way to go out, no doubt. To be part of Darren Lockyer’s send-off the year before, I just remember the energy and emotion behind seeing a great champion retire. And I guess for me to be in that same boat – making a call to retire – it was a very humbling experience, but it just an amazing performance from the boys collectively to get us home. Looking back, we didn’t play the most fluent football through that series – particularly when you look back to the run of successes that we’d had – but it was enough to get us there. So I’m just grateful that I could go out on a winning note.
Obviously a lot gets made of the influence of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston – they talk about the spine, and they’ve been hugely influential. And Darren Lockyer before that. They’re all great leaders. But I probably look to Mal’s influence on the team and what he’s brought to this current group; there’s that real sense of ownership, about what the Queensland jersey means and what it stands for, and representing the Queensland people. I think collectively that’s something the Queensland boys have taken ownership of. They really understand that when you pull that jersey on, you’re not just playing football – you’re there representing people from Western Queensland, Far North Queensland, everywhere. And your family and friends. When you feel that and everyone’s a part of that, it’s a pretty strong thing.
I haven’t really reflected on those records (Origin’s most-capped forward and oldest-ever player) – I haven’t had too much time to contemplate how lucky I’ve been. Obviously I understand I’ve been very fortunate; but I guess I haven’t … you know, to hear those numbers and records is very humbling, and again it just highlights how fortunate I’ve been to have had a good run and to live my dream of playing for Queensland. And then for the body to hold up long enough to do that, there’s been a fair bit of luck involved as well.
Andrew Johns, through those lean years that we were talking about, he was such a dominant force within the NSW side for those years. He was always someone that was so tough to go up against; I guess he’s what Darren Lockyer is for us, you know, those champion players read the game so well. They’re a play in front of everyone else and come up with those clutch plays. Danny Buderus, the NSW hooker, I just have a great amount of respect for him, the way he played – he wasn’t the biggest bloke, but he just would go all day and he was such a force within that NSW forward pack. In terms of front-rowers, it’s hard to pick one out. But Jason Ryles, Mark O’Meley, Luke Bailey – they were all guys that were just hitting their straps, they were in the prime of their careers when I got to play against them in State of Origin. They are certainly three guys that come to mind as tough opponents.
I’m sure there’s always a little bit of feeling that spills over from the after-effects of Origin into the Australian team. But that’s quickly dispelled when you get into camp and put on that green-and-gold jersey. I think any animosity, or any ill-feeling that you may have throughout the Origin series gets put to rest because, again, you’re united by that green-and-gold jersey. That’s the pinnacle, that’s the highest honour for any Rugby League player, to wear that jersey. I think that’s first and foremost at the front of the players’ minds, that they want to do that Australian jersey proud and get along with your teammates no matter which state you’re from.
I didn’t find (being a spectator for the first time in 2013) too tough at all. No doubt it’s an amazing feeling wearing the Queensland jersey, lining up for the national anthem – and when that whistle sounds for kick-off, I’ll never forget the feeling of what that’s like. But to sit back in the stands this year – I’m grateful for how many years I did get to play. And now I appreciate that it’s someone else’s opportunity. I handled it a lot better than I thought I would; I was probably happy to be in the stands as opposed to wanting to be out there. No doubt as time goes on there will be those feelings of wanting to get back out there again, but they’re quickly put to rest when I think how lucky I’ve been for the amount of years I got to play Origin.
I think (NSW) are (getting closer), I think that’s something the Queensland boys have to be very wary of. The moment we start to get a bit complacent and get too cocky and overconfident, that’s when we’re going to get beaten. I think that’s one of the great things Mal has done with this group, through all the successes that we’ve had, is to bring us back down to understand that preparation is the key. If we get sloppy in our preparation, then we’re going to get beaten – and I think that’s a legacy Mal will leave with this team if he decides to hang up the coaching clipboard in a few years or whatever. He’s made sure that that’s always got to be the focus, that attention to detail and the importance of preparing as best as possible.