As Queenslanders celebrate the 40th anniversary of the inaugural State of Origin match, it is interesting to reflect on one man’s reasoning behind the amazing slump, which saw New South Wales win every inter-state series from 1960 until that historic night, July 8, 1980.
Wally O’Connell, a former Australian halfback, who coached Queensland in 1973, laid the blame squarely at the inferior coaching programs in the Sunshine State.
Wally acknowledged the fact that Queensland lost many of its stars to the poker machine backed Sydney clubs, but said there was no escaping the fact New South Wales always had the edge, in terms of skills training, through the grades.
This, no doubt, was a sore point with some of Queensland’s top coaches, like Bob Bax, Brian Davies and Henry Holloway, the latter a New South Welshman himself.
O’Connell was recommended to the QRL – as State coach – by Australian Rugby League chairman, Bill Buckley. The QRL had approached Buckley, asking for advice on who might be able to help break New South Wales’ stranglehold on the annual inter-state series.
In his autobiography, ‘In Defence’, O’Connell said he effectively told Buckley he was happy in retirement. But the QRL didn’t give up, with their supremo, Ron McAuliffe phoning O’Connell during a visit to Sydney with fellow QRL board member, Jim Slaughter.
“I accepted an invitation to meet them at New South Wales Leagues Club,” O’Connell said. “I told them I was not interested in coaching Queensland, or any other team, as I had retired. But I listened to their offer and took notes on some of the points they raised. I mentioned the lack of foundation to the QRL, and, that without a solid base, victory over NSW would be short-lived. They asked me to think about it. I told them it was a tall order, but when we met again a week later, I agree to give it a go.”
One of the first things O’Connell did was to research the paths the elite players in Queensland had taken, on their way to senior football. NSW had in a place a coaching certificate, where coaches of young players had coaching manuals on the skills of the game. These coaches were required to sit for oral and written exams before receiving their coaching certificate.
O’Connell said Queensland did not have a similar system, and relied on NSW coaching panel members travelling north to help out the clubs.
“The NSW players, already skilled in the basics, could spend training time on attacking and defensive plays, and so Queensland players were disadvantaged when playing NSW in State matches,” O’Connell said.
“I said I would coach Queensland if they allowed me to introduce a coaching certificate, to cover all areas in Queensland, and to have the present members of the coaching panel, Bob Bax and ‘Firpo’ Neumann, to assist me.”
O’Connell said he did not think Qld would fully reap the benefits until six or seven years later – around 1980.
Coaching seminars were held throughout Queensland in 1973. In the north, that meant places like Townsville, Cairns, Mareeba, Tully, Atherton, Innisfail, Bowen, Proserpine, Mackay, Ayr and Ingham. Contacts in the north included Aldo Morretto (Ingham), Jim Paterson (Townsville), Alan Gil (Cairns) and Len Staggs (Proserpine). At Ayr, the QRL contact was John McKinley, the pilot of a crop duster plane. That plane was used to transport O’Connell between some of the centres where he conducted his coaching seminars.
O’Connell was accustomed to different forms of aircraft. In 1949, when he was vice-captain of the Australian team in New Zealand, and had flown from Sydney’s Rose Bay in a sea plane.
Halfway across the Tasman, the plane returned to Rose Bay after one of the engines caught fire. They made it safely, and the next day, Friday the 13th, flew out again from Rose Bay, this time making it to New Zealand without mishap. (One journalist was assigned to fly with the team – Jim Mathers from Sydney’s Daily Mirror).
The Queensland State side went into camp 16 days before the first match against New South Wales at Lang Park, but went down 16-0. They lost the return match in Brisbane 10-0, and in the final match in Sydney, also failed to score, this time conceding 26 points.
I saw the first match when former South Sydney skipper, John Sattler led Queensland, who had future ‘super coach’, Wayne Bennett at fullback.
O’Connell had only agreed to coach for one year, and it is doubtful he would have retained the job anyway.
In 1974, the new coach was Barry Muir, and Queensland only lost the series 1-0, after drawing two matches. In 1975, under Muir, Queensland won Game 1 and narrowly lost the next two.
I recall Barry being shocked when one player chosen for Queensland, during his time as coach, did not have a grasp of the fundamentals of passing on both sides of the body. I won’t mention the players’ name, but perhaps O’Connell was right when he said the state was deficient when it came to coaching the basics.
O’Connell’s biography was loaned to me by former Test hooker, Johnny Lang, who played in that 1973 inter-state series, and later became a premiership winning coach in Brisbane and Sydney.
“But while it didn’t work out for the team, I realised Wally had a different way at looking at the game,” Lang wrote in a tribute included in the book. “Even now, I’ve got clear memories of the things we worked on, and it gave me a different perspective on the game.”
1 The 1973 Queensland Rugby League side, coached by Wally O’Connell. Wayne Bennett is third from left in the backrow
2 Wally O’Connell on tour in Queensland
3 Wally O’Connell presents an award to British player, Mike Sullivan in Sydney in 1958.