So close but so far: The best Origin players never
by Nick Fray, Origin Online and Over the Line Sports
State of Origin is the pinnacle of rugby league in Australia, and the desperation of both sides to win means that selectors are always looking for players with both the physical and mental attributes to help guide their state to glory.
State of Origin’s roll-call is a who’s who of the game’s greats from the last 35 years; anyone who is considered a true great of the game has had their chance at Origin level, however the list of top-shelf first graders with only one or two Origin appearances to their credit is a long one.
With that said, there are many players out there with long and distinguished first grade careers who never quite got their opportunity. Here is a look at some of those players who could have thrived in the Origin arena if they just had a little bit more luck:
Aaron Payne/Nathan Friend: Both of these men had the misfortune of playing in the same era as a likely Immortal in Cameron Smith. With Smith the one of the first names on the Maroons team sheet for the past decade, Payne and Friend never had a look-in despite years of outstanding service at club level. The best chance for both men came in 2010 when smith was ruled out of Game One, but selectors ultimately went with Manly’s Matt Ballin.
Ashley Graham: The flyer from Cairns started out at Parramatta before becoming a mainstay in the deadly backline for the North Queensland Cowboys for the best part of a decade. Despite scoring at better than a try every other game, Graham had to endure years of being named as a shadow player without ever pulling on the maroon during the state’s golden run. An early retirement due to a chronic wrist problem put an end to Graham’s Origin dream in 2013.
John Plath: Starting out as Allan Langer’s understudy at the Broncos, Plath’s utility value earned him a spot on the Broncos bench during the club’s successful 1992 campaign and he never looked back, playing a big part in a further three premierships. Unfortunately for Plath, the utility role wasn’t as prominent during his era and he never got the callup for Queensland.
Gavin Cooper: Cooper has seemingly been on the verge of Queensland selection forever, and despite becoming one of the competition’s most reliable back rowers since linking up with the Cowboys again in 2011 he has been unable to break into the Maroons setup. At 28 the dream may not be completely over for Cooper, but a dislocated hip suffered on the eve of the 2014 campaign means time is fast running out, which is a great shame given his excellent combination at club level with Maroons champion Johnathan Thurston.
Tony Rea: Rea has enjoyed a long career in the game, starting out at Brisbane club Brothers in the mid 1980s before switching to the North Sydney Bears and later the London Broncos. Rea was one of the most consistent and tough players of his time but he simply had the misfortune of having the Walters brothers Steve and Kerrod ahead of him in the pecking order.
New South Wales
Geoff Robinson: Robinson was a cult figure at the Bulldogs during the early 80s, and is still fondly remembered by practically all rugby league fans from that era. A fearless and entertaining player, Robinson would have been a great inclusion in the New South Wales sides that struggled during the early years of Origin as his heart and passion exemplified what Origin is all about.
Darren Britt/Simon Gillies: Bulldogs teammates Britt and Gillies were two of the toughest forwards of the 1990s and were big reasons why the Dogs were perennial contenders throughout the decade. While Britt represented Australia nine times and Gillies played all three games for New South Wales in the 1997 Super League Tri-Series, neither had the opportunity to represent the Blues in the Origin arena.
Alan Tongue: The heart and soul of the Canberra Raiders throughout the 2000s, Tongue played 220 games for the Green Machine before his retirement in 2011. Tongue is best remembered for his phenomenal defensive workrate, registering over 1000 tackles in the 2006 season with very few misses to be seen. Tongue would have been a great servant for the Blues but was perennially overlooked in favour of more skilful players.
Noa Nadruku/Nathan Blacklock: While Akuila Uate has had a taste of the Origin arena in recent years, the original Fijian flyer Nadruku was not so fortunate, while Blacklock’s continued snubbing at the hands of Blues selectors became an annual talking point in the early 2000s. Both men were try-scoring freaks, scoring just under a try per game throughout their careers, and the fact their exploits never extended to the Origin arena is a crying shame.
Matt Orford: While his return with Canberra in 2011 didn’t exactly go as planned, Orford was one of the standout halfbacks of the 2000s, starting out with an emerging Melbourne Storm team before leading Manly to back-to-back grand finals against, ironically, Melbourne, winning the second of those 40-0. Orford also picked up a Dally M medal along the way, but somehow was never able to force his way into the Blues side.
A little bit of both
Craig Polla-Mounter: Long before the cloudy Origin eligibility dramas of Greg Inglis, former Bulldog Polla-Mounter was at the centre of an interstate tug-of-war when the Toowoomba native was selected for the City Origin side in 1993. Ultimately, Polla-Mounter was never picked for the Blues, and while he wasn’t exactly in the same class as Inglis, he did lead the Bulldogs to three grand finals and forged a very successful first grade career.
Did we miss anyone? Please feel free to let us know in the comment section below.