Wally Lewis is the most dominant player in State of Origin history, winning eight man-of-the-match awards in 31 appearances for Queensland – 30 of them as captain. After playing in the inaugural clash in 1980, the incomparable five-eighth led the Maroons to victory in seven of the first 10 three-match Origin series. Idolised in the Sunshine State and despised south of the border in equal quantities during his career, ‘King’ Wally was brilliant, abrasive, controversial and fearless – a supreme competitor. Lewis later coached Queensland in two series and became a popular media personality, while he was named in Australia’s Team of the Century in 2008; his legacy is closely intertwined with the State of Origin narrative.
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 remember going along to Lang Park as a youngster in the hope that Queensland were going to win – and trudging away disappointed so many times. But I remember one time when Queensland did win in the mid-’70s; ‘Bunny’ Pearce was the fullback – the joy that was on all the players’ faces, they were jumping up and celebrating. And so were the crowd, hugging people next to them that they didn’t even know.
I felt like everybody else, I suppose (when Origin was introduced). It was an opportunity to finally get the players back in the Maroon jersey that were so often the trump cards for NSW in clashes before Origin came along. It was a chance to be able to see them in a Maroon jersey, to stand alongside them, and it was a privilege to be able to play alongside some of the game’s greats.
I remember the first game pretty clearly. It was a bit of a long, slow process before the kick-off. We went out there and each player was introduced; I think the loudest cheer – it went along from one to 15 – and when it got to number 11, the roar went up for Arthur Beetson, but it was actually John Lang. They’d skipper number 11 and gone straight to number 12, then they introduced Arthur last, so there were two huge cheers. John Lang still regards it as the loudest cheer he ever got!
It was a daunting prospect taking over the captaincy in 1981. ‘Beetso’ being injured – he was playing Brisbane club football then. And while everyone was suggesting he was still ok, he was saying: “No, no I’m not playing any good,” and he eventually pulled out. He just kept saying to me: “She’ll be right.” I felt a bit lost, having had his services taken away from me.
Just about every game stands out in the memory, but I remember in the third game in ’83, we got to a 33-0 scoreline. I talked to our blokes, I said: “Have a look at that (the scoreboard) up there. What do you think that means to Queensland Rugby League?” It was a wonderful thing. We used to get thrashed by that many points – now we were dishing it out.
The structure that we had was so important (to our success). Ron McAuliffe was the boss, he was doing everything off the field, handling all of the promotions that were necessary. He was also putting a bit of pressure on the players, reminding them that we’d being bragging for so long – that ‘give us our players back and we’ll beat New South Wales.’ And there was a bit of a three-man team there – Beetson as a player and then coach was fantastic; John McDonald was good in the first year as coach, but I think even ‘Cracker’ admits that despite all of the work and what he had to say as coach, most people were listening to Beetson. But (McDonald) was the primary source of information, and he was outstanding. In the years that followed, the backbone that was provided by Dick ‘Tosser’ Turner was so important. ‘Tosser’ Turner was a wonderful source of information, relief and faith for the players. He was one of the unsung heroes of the Queensland team for many years.
I think I took the defeats (in 1985-86) more personally, without a doubt. Defeat is never comfortable, you never enjoy them. But when it came along – ’85 was the first year – it was a bitter pill to swallow. Then ’86 there were a few things that weren’t going right, but we had to deal with them ourselves. Having been beaten convincingly in the ’86 series was just a direct indication that changes had to be made, and considering it was Wayne Bennett’s first year as coach, he made some drastic alterations.
The treatment from the (Sydney) media made the wins even sweeter. Having come in to work in the media myself recently, you understand what a bit of it is about – they’ve got to come up with stories. And on so many occasions, that’s exactly what they would do. As one of the journos once said to me, I said to the bloke “Mate, that’s not right. You know that’s not right.” He said “Well, we never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I thought: “You lowlife!” Anyway, that was the way it was. A coach that I came to deal with a couple of years later said “Give ’em nothing, take ’em nowhere”.
Every time we played (in Sydney) there’d be some promotion, or the ‘Wally’s a wanker’ thing came up. I used to think, ‘just once, I wish we could get the opportunity to play against some of the blokes that are writing the stories’. I’ve got say, though, that towards the end of it I had to thank them, because it always guaranteed I was in the best possible frame of mind for every Origin encounter that came along. As ‘Turvey’ Mortimer said to me once, “I wish they’d shut up – they’re just guaranteeing that you’re going to be at your best whenever you play”. So I should have been happy in one respect, that they were providing that inspiration.
It was tough watching from the sidelines for the first time (in 1988) – it wasn’t much fun at all. But I got the opportunity to watch Peter Jackson play in my spot. You just knew that everything was going to be 100 per cent by the way he approached the game, he was terrific. It was hard to miss the game, but the players provided relief – in particular ‘Jacko’ – and ‘Fatty’ (Vautin) reminded me that the captaincy rose to an all-time high that night under his leadership! That in itself was comforting, but it was the most uncomfortable 80 minutes I’d experienced for some time.
I was very proud of the way they performed (in game two of the 1989 series) on the night. They were very impressive, they had a dig and I think it was a real indication of the spirit that was in the Queensland camp. They were all pretty good about things after fulltime – but it certainly wasn’t a comfortable experience during the match when everything went wrong. Injuries left, right and centre. But to be able to walk off the field in a State of Origin game – without a full team on the field, with just 12 men on the field – was something that could not usually be handled.
It was a bit of a testing time when ‘Lowie’ (Graham Lowe) took over as coach (in 1991), because not many people warmed to the idea – or they took a little while to do it. Arthur had been so successful previously, so they thought it was a bit of an insult to him. But being involved with Graham Lowe – I’d had a bit to do with him, and working alongside him you knew that things were going to be OK. I had plenty of faith in him; he’s a guy that also speaks from the heart. And it was a very testing and trying series, that one – in particular what happened with ‘Lowie’s’ health. He was struggling, and when you know you’re getting a great performance from the players, but you’re also getting one from the coach – when he rips the hospital drips out of his arm – to jump into the final training session and speak to the players. And then to drag himself to the game when he should have been strapped to a hospital bed.
I couldn’t have picked a better way to finish (my Origin career), but to be honest I couldn’t have given a rat’s arse – it wasn’t the outcome of the game that was behind the decision to retire, it was my daughter. We’d just found out that day (of the decider) that she was profoundly deaf, and family is lot more important than football. So the decision was made pretty comfortably, but I must say that over the years I’m glad that it was a win rather than a loss that I was able to retire on, because it made it a fairly happy finish.
Me driving the team bus … it was probably an opportunity for the players to get the pressure of playing the game off their minds. I think I managed to achieve that – footy was probably the last thing on their minds when they got on that bus. Hopefully it was entertaining for them!
Being coach of Queensland was testing. When I look back, I’m damn sure it was the wrong time. I was talked into the coaching position – ‘Tosser’ spent some time trying to get me to do it, and I changed my mind two or three times and then took it hook, line and sinker. If I had my time all over again I wouldn’t do it; there was some great moments, but I was also up against – which made it more uncomfortable – the greatest coach that NSW has ever had in Phil Gould, so that in itself indicated that it wasn’t going to be easy on the night. Despite a couple of those nights being spectacular events – in particular the one that featured the Mark Coyne try, when we got them on the bell.
(Origin) still holds a very special place for me. Anybody that doesn’t get excited on Origin night either doesn’t like the game, or they’re fans of another sport. But there’s quite a number of those that love watching Origin – we used to be amazed at how many cricketers, how many rugby players, how many soccer players, AFL blokes, that would come in and watch the games and knew all about them. It’s become – despite the constant criticism and doubts from Sydney Rugby League identities in the early years, when they said it was a waste of time … well, they were left with more than one egg on their face. It was a complete success, a wonderful success.
Origin’s heading in the right direction – but I think there needs to be careful analysis of that each and every year. A lot of people believe that it’s a bit of a disaster zone at the moment with all the controversies, all the players being sent to the sin bin, the shit-fight that’s taken place in the lead-up to this game (the second game of the 2013 series). But I do think it’s imperative that we have Rugby League figures playing a major role in the future of the game. Rugby League was at its strongest when we had two of those in Ken Arthurson and John Quayle, providing the backbone.
Without being overly critical of the blokes that have been thrown to the wolves lately … the bloke that was in charge last year, David Gallop – you’ve only got to have a look at his performances since he’s gone to soccer, which has gone ahead in leaps and bounds. The blokes that have come in to Rugby League in his place – as soon as they come into that role, they’ve got the gloves up, trying not to get the shit beaten out of them! So we’ve got to be very careful about the people we place in those positions. Now, we’ve got the bloke from Canterbury (Todd Greenberg), he seems to have been running the Bulldogs extremely well and very professionally over the last couple of years and hopefully the injection of his knowledge will help the League – and Origin football – travel in the right direction.