Queensland overcame the odds to beat New South Wales in the 2020 State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium. Should anyone, least of all Blues players, coaches and fans, be surprised by this turn of events? Surely not if they have been paying any attention over the past 40 years.
Queensland rugby league was born an underdog. When the first interstate matches were played, Queensland would be up against its best players, who had been lured to the big league in Sydney. Each year the best Maroons players would pull on sky blue jerseys and take part in a ritual humiliation of their own state. Over time it built a long and deep resentment in both players and fans.
When State of Origin was born in 1980, and Queensland great Arthur Beetson led the first Maroons Origin team out onto Lang Park, they were still expected to bow to the superior quality of the New South Wales Origin team. Despite being the underdogs, they won that game 20-10. The following year they won the stand alone Origin game 22-15, fighting back from a 15-0 deficit against their more favoured opponents.
The first three, three-game series were all won 2-1 by Queensland. A pattern was beginning to emerge, but the punters didn't seem to be able to wrap their heads around it. In sports betting when a team continually shows the ability to win against the odds, it will usually lose its underdog status, as more money is invested in that ability. But in Origin betting, it seems the old adage of "a New South Welshman and his money are soon parted" is true, as Blues supporters continue to line up to put their hard-earned money where their heart is.
To be fair to punters there has only been one series clean sweep in the last 20 years, so if you blindly placed your money on the Blues, you would collect at least one in three times each series. If you were putting your money on New South Wales to win the series however, you would have collected just three times in the last 15 years.
Having the weight of money and expectation against them spurs Queenslanders on to achieve greatness. Like a cornered animal, the Maroons are at their best when everyone is expecting the worst from them. Paul Vautin coached the Maroons in the 1995 series, which was decimated by the Super League signings. Both states suffered a loss of star players, but Queensland were particularly hard hit with the Broncos and Cowboys signing with the new competition. Some of the players who ran out for Queensland that year were barely first grade footballers, yet they came together, played for the fabled maroon-coloured jersey and won the series 3-0.
Even in the midst of their record breaking eight-straight series victories, which started in 2006, Queenslanders went to great lengths, often tongue in cheek, to claim underdog status. Each year they trotted out a team built around Cameron Smith, Copper Cronk, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis and every year the Blues would shuffle the deck chairs trying to come up with answers. Smart punters could see the inevitability of it all, but most lived on in the belief that the Maroons were one game and one series closer to their next loss.
With the retirement on the "big four" Cronk, Inglis, Smith and finally Slater, it was assumed the reign of the Maroons would be over and the Blues would assume their rightful place atop the rugby league pecking order. With series victories in 2018 and 2019, it seemed the Blues would finally enjoy a much-deserved period of supremacy.
The 2020 series rolled around at the end of an unprecedented pandemic-marred season. On paper, the Blues were a far superior line-up and the bookmakers slashed their odds as a victory in the Adelaide opener seemed inevitable.
Kevin Waters was replaced as Queensland coach after he signed on with the Broncos and wily old Wayne Bennett was coerced into taking control. He enlisted the help of Mal Meninga and together they set about filling the minds of the latest crop of Queensland players with the great tales of the underdog. No doubt telling them: it means more to play for Queensland, the world will write you off, the whole of New South Wales will disrespect your ability, if you work together like the great teams of the past, you too will enjoy the ultimate glory of victory against the odds.
They played a gritty, determined game in Adelaide, worked for each other, defended with every ounce of their being and pressured the Blues into collapsing on their own lofty expectations. It was a classic Maroons victory, fighting back from 10-0 down at the break to outscore the Blues 18-4 in the second half. It sparked another Blues fire sale with much-hyped first gamer Luke Keary punted for Cody Walker, plus a few changes to the forwards due to injuries.
Game 2 at ANZ Stadium did more to meet the expectations of punters, with the Blues running away to be comfortable 34-10 winners, scoring six tries to two against a Maroons side which lost star Cameron Munster in the opening two minutes of the game. Tellingly, in the dressing sheds after the game, the usually straight-faced Bennett was seen joking and laughing with his players. The series was level and it was heading to Suncorp Stadium for a decider, where the Blues would no doubt be heavily favoured to win their third-straight series. Bennett and the Maroons were exactly where they needed to be.
The atmosphere at Suncorp Stadium has to be experienced to be understood. Formerly Lang Park and long referred to as "the cauldron" the roar of a largely Maroons supporting crowd can be physically intimidating. With a season played in front of mostly empty stadiums, it would have come as a shock to the senses of those new Blues players running out on Wednesday night for the decider.
With the crowd behind them and playing with that intangible advantage of being both underdogs and Queenslanders, the Maroons were victorious once again. During his victory speech captain Daly Cherry-Evans gleefully mentioned the fact that they had been labeled the worst team ever selected to represent Queensland.
They were ridiculed by the New South Wales media, mocked by former Blues players and the weight of money suggested they had no hope of winning. There was only one way the Queensland rugby league team was going to respond under those circumstances.
Once again making a complete mockery of their cherished underdog status. It's what Queenslanders live to do.