Match of My Years – The Long Game

NSW 1997 Tri-Series

Mike Simpson recalls a lengthy Origin encounter that briefly allowed the action to rise above the rancour during Australia’s bitter Super League war.

Being part of the history of a game that lasted a mind boggling 104 minutes, will surely go down as one match that I will always remember.

Cast your minds back to the infamous Super League war in Australia in 1997 that divided the sport between the established ARL and the new rebel competition. It left the fans’ heads spinning as to who to support.

During this great divide, friendships would be tested and the game as we knew it would change forever.

Whilst the ARL tried hard to quash Super League, Rupert Murdoch had other plans, throwing ridiculous amounts of money at players, some who had barely even played first grade.

Gone were these fringe first graders’ 9 to 5 jobs and to put it simply, they were enjoying the fruits of their newfound wealth alongside club legends who had also hit the jackpot come contract time.

With the ARL continuing its traditional Queensland vs New South Wales three game State of Origin series, the breakaway competition added their own twist to their product, including New Zealand in a Tri Series Origin competition.

Whilst the new concept excited some fans around the world (in particular New Zealand), it certainly hit a nerve with traditionalists (like me) who were left baffled.

Gone was the tribal warfare between state vs state and mate vs mate and for many, the inclusion of the Kiwis just made the concept even more confusing.

But more on this game later.

Having attended the very first State of Origin game back in 1980 at the old Lang Park, I had attended every game since and to this day, have never missed a beat.

State of Origin is more than a game in Queensland, it’s an all-out war against our Blues counterparts who are also deeply passionate about the Cockroaches.

When the late Barry Muir came up with the nicknames of Cane Toads and Cockroaches, it stuck like glue with the fans.

As the years rolled on, both teams would then simply be identified as the Maroons and Blues.

On game day, every office, pub, house and person in Brisbane, sports either the Maroon of Queensland or the Blue of New South Wales.

Friendly banter can be heard on trains, buses or at the local shopping centre and Brisbane city itself comes alive when night falls.

The famous Caxton Street pub and the streets that surround Suncorp Stadium, are bursting at the seams.

I often get asked about the atmosphere on Origin night and I will always say the same thing. Be it the old Lang Park or the new state of the art Suncorp Stadium, you have to be there to fully immerse yourself in the energy.

Whilst I may have been living in the past during Super League, I was curious enough to see what all the fuss was about with Murdoch’s Tri Series when it was made public.

During the 1993 season, the Broncos relocated from Lang Park to the then ANZ Stadium (now known as the Queensland Sports and Athletics Center).

It would also be the venue for the 1997 Tri Series final played between Queensland and New South Wales after New Zealand were eventually eliminated.

The hype surrounding the series and the build up to the final could probably be best described as “deflated” and “boring”.

Gone was the rivalry that usually kicked off between the fans and heading up to the Stadium after work, I didn’t get the same aura as I did when I walked down Caxton Street.

To make matters worse, ANZ Stadium had an Olympic sized running track around the perimeter of the field, which meant that fans were certainly not as close to the action like at most suburban grounds or Lang Park.

However, on the 19th of May 1997, the 35 570 fans that were perched amongst the action, would witness one of the most electrifying State of Origin matches in history, albeit, in a bizarre format.

Having endured a mammoth 104 minutes of action, it would take a Noel Goldthorpe field goal to break the deadlock, handing New South Wales a 23-22 victory in enemy territory.

Not even a young Darren Lockyer, the flying Steve Renouf or the little general himself Allan Langer, could keep the trophy in Queensland territory.

Instead, I saw a New South Wales side spurred on by Greg Alexander, Andrew Ettingshausen, and eventual hero Goldthorpe, playing pivotal roles in upsetting the Queenslanders party.

But perhaps the New South Welshmen may not have had the luxury of becoming the first and last Super League side to win a State of Origin series if it wasn’t for the brilliance of Canberra Raiders fullback Brett Mullins.

His three try haul was mesmerizing to watch as he cut the Queensland defence to shreds.

Whilst most people were happy to be finally up off the aluminum seating after the marathon game (including yours truly), a standing ovation was given to both sides who proved the doubters wrong by delivering one of the greatest finishes in Australian Rugby League history.

Curiously, this particular game to date, is the longest ever “first-class” rugby league match in Australia, however there is one game that tops this at amateur level, the NSW Group 21 Grand Final between Denman vs Scone back in 2015.

After an astonishing 48 minutes of extra time, Denman finally crossed the chalk running out winners 24-20, technically making it the longest ever rugby league match played in Australia.
But take nothing away from the 1997 Tri Series Final that was played in pulsating fashion.

It would eventually become one of the most cherished if not favourite games of rugby league that I have witnessed.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 486 (July 2023)

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