How NSW hung this Origin hero out to dry

Brett Finch, who went from schooners to State of Origin in 24 hours, will always remember the sound.

“I could’ve kicked it from f–king Moore Park, I hit it that well,” he told Wide World of Sports of his famous 2006 field goal, which won NSW that year’s series opener.

“I was pretty confident when the ball was coming to me and when I hit it, I knew I’d struck it well. It’s like when you hear a six at the cricket, just that middle of the bat.

“I knew just with the sound of it. It’s one thing with pressure, you don’t even think; ‘It’s close to 40 [metres out], I’m just making sure I get the distance’. But as soon as I hit it, I knew, ‘Wow, I’ve got hold of this’. I just looked up and I’ve seen it go straight between the posts.

“It was a great feeling. That one moment, you’ve got 80,000 people cheering something you did. You can’t find that again, you’re not going to get that in retirement. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Yet not long after Finch’s big moment, things got “f–king ridiculous”.

NSW won that series opener 17-16. Finch kicked the field goal with 90 seconds remaining at a packed Stadium Australia, wearing No.20.

“It’s a wonderful game, rugby league,” iconic Blues halfback Peter Sterling said that night on Nine’s commentary. “Here’s a man who gets a lot of criticism … well, none tonight. He has won the game for NSW.”

This year marks 15 years since the big moment and Finch laughs, “I’ll take any reason to celebrate it.” Because really, he had no right to be there. His call-up is one of the great Origin stories.

Finch played for the Roosters in a 28-26 win over South Sydney on the Sunday, partnering a young Jamie Soward in the halves because Braith Anasta was already in NSW camp. Job done for the weekend – beer time.

He couldn’t have known that a life-changing phone call was coming. He was in the pub again on Tuesday night when Craig Gower collided with Steve Menzies at the Blues’ final training session, injuring his ankle.

“It was the night before [Origin] and I’d been having a beer. I’d been on the drink for a couple of days,” Finch said.

“We played the Sunday, so we had a few beers. Back then, you’d train Monday, go for beers and train Tuesday; we were back at the pub Tuesday night. I was at the pub when I got the call, so I had to get home. I couldn’t drive because I’d had too much to drink, so I had to get a taxi home, then a taxi out to Parramatta.

“I got the call at about nine o’clock, so I went out to Parramatta at 10, 11 o’clock at night; maybe later, close to midnight the night before the game. The next day, I turned up for a bit of a run-through to learn the plays, the day of the game. I was a little hungover, a little dusty. And then I played.”

Finch wasn’t the first choice. Future Immortal Andrew Johns had retired from Origin at that point and didn’t want to play. SOS calls to other halfbacks also went unanswered.

It was a crazy assignment, which was right up Finch’s alley.

“It’s one game; I wasn’t nervous. I knew I had nothing to lose, I knew the situation. I knew it was a free shot; never give a sucker an even break,” he said.

“For situations like that, I was sort of your man for that because I’d take it on. Those sorts of situations didn’t faze me. With someone else, they might need the full week in camp, where I sort of didn’t. I thought that was perfect.

“I knew a lot of the boys, a lot of the boys were my close mates anyway. Newcastle and the Dogs boys, St George boys, ‘Gaz’ (Mark Gasnier) and all that, I grew up with them or played against them for a long time; and played Origin with them in 2004, so I’d been in and around those guys. It’s not like I had to meet anyone new.

“‘Muzza’ (the late Graham Murray) was the coach and I was with Muzza at Hunter Mariners, so I knew Muzza well. Laurie [Daley] was the assistant coach and I played with ‘Loz’. So there was nothing new, the people involved with the team I had a good relationship with. I just walked in and lucky for me, the rest was history.

“Playing Origin, in one regard it’s easy, because you’re playing with the best players in the world. Things you have to worry about at club level, you don’t have to worry about [in Origin] because everyone’s high quality and they do their job.

“I was really lucky that first game, the forwards really dominated, which got me into the game. I could get into a rhythm quite easily, we were playing on the front foot a lot in the first half, which makes it a lot easier. You’re playing with blokes like [Danny] Buderus, it just helps. It was one of the great games and something I’ll always remember.”

Willie Mason was man of the match for NSW but Finch was also a standout, scoring a try and notching two try assists. In the lead-up to his field goal, he had a hand in a backline movement that got Gasnier into space and over halfway, then jumped into dummy-half to feed Steve Simpson for a 12 metre charge that put the Blues into range.

Bang. Instant folklore for a man who was a larrikin, sure, but also a fierce competitor.

“For me, I’ve got my little piece of Origin and I played really well that game, it was one of the better games I’ve played,” Finch said.

“When you look back, I just more appreciated the mentality I played with. The same reason I kicked out on the full off a 20-metre restart when I was 19 and lost the game against Newcastle was the same reason I kicked that; I wanted the footy in my hands and always wanted, when the game was on the line, to make a difference.

“I always felt, no matter what the situation, I could beat it; whatever the odds were, I could beat the odds. It got me into trouble plenty of times and I probably should have known my limitations, but having that mentality I had at that moment … it was a great moment.”

The celebrations were big – a triumphant return to the eastern suburbs watering holes he’d been in only yesterday – and Finch had guaranteed himself another crack in Origin II, up at Suncorp Stadium.

But that was when things turned sour.

Finch and Anasta were retained for Origin II but the Blues lost 30-6. Cue the axe.

‘We got hammered the last game so something had to change,” NSW selector Bob McCarthy said, when naming an Origin III side with Gasnier and Gower in the halves.

“Some of the players that missed out, their body language … suggested to us that they lack a bit of confidence at the present stage.”

Finch was dumped for the decider and never played Origin again. He’d somehow gone from hero to scapegoat in the space of one game.

“The way they chopped and changed the halves over the next four, five, six years, it was no surprise,” he said.

“But you would have thought, the series is over if I don’t win the first one. We get beat in the second one, I thought we all played pretty poorly, not just me. But obviously I was used as … it was easy to get rid of me and Braith, like they got rid of the halves over the years for so often.

“They just didn’t get it for a long time, the selectors, they didn’t let people settle. You would have thought it would be nice to play the decider, considering you’ve been a big reason why you win the first game.

“But that certainly happened to a lot of people over that eight-year period of Queensland’s dominance, a lot of blokes got one chance and that was it. Especially if you play in the halves, in the high-pressure positions.

“So I played that game two and I never played again. And I had a perfect preparation. I had two weeks up in camp, off the drink, perfect. Played s–thouse. Maybe that other style was more for me.”

No one could have imagined at the time that NSW was about to plummet into Origin hell.

Queensland won the decider 16-14 at Docklands in Melbourne, snapping a three-year winning streak for the Blues and starting an unprecedented eight-year run of their own; which became 11 series wins in 12 years. It all began with 2006, sealed with the errant Brett Hodgson pass upon which Darren Lockyer pounced for the match-winning try.

“That was the first one. We win the first game and game two, we go up there to play for four in a row,” Finch said.

“I think that’s why they were so ruthless early; they didn’t know what this [Queensland] team would become, we were just expected to win. Then all of a sudden, you think eight years later, ‘F–k, maybe I’m not that bad after all. These blokes haven’t been beaten’.”

The turnover of players in the halves was brutal. NSW used 19 players in 19 different halves combinations during the 2006-2017 period. They used seven players in five different combinations in 2006-07 alone and 17 halves across 16 pairings before they got a breakthrough series win in 2014.

The Blues halfback for Origin I of 2007 was infamously Jarrod Mullen; it was his only game for NSW, thanks to a 25-18 loss. Fellow teenager Mitchell Pearce was thrown to the wolves in an ill-fated decider the following year.

“Early days, 2006, ’07, ’08, the chopping and changing of the halves was just f–king ridiculous, you know. Blokes were getting one game, a couple of games, and out of there,” Finch said.

“You play Origin … I remember Cameron [Smith] lost his first three series, 2003, ’04, ’05. It took him nine, 10 games to finally be settled.

“Some of them Queensland boys, they lost early then went on a great run. We just got 80 minutes to perform and if you didn’t, you’re out. It’s quite cutthroat but that’s the way it was.

“Looking back at that Queensland team, just the amazing champions in it, you sort of think, ‘F–k, maybe we weren’t that bad after all’.”

Would Cameron Smith have ever become the legend that he did, had he played for NSW under their vicious selection policy? Or would he have been axed and thrown on the scrapheap?

“He could have been, a lot of people were,” Finch said.

“Campo only got one game, Pete Wallace got a couple of games. You’re just chewed up and spat out, so to speak.

“But you live and learn with all that. Now hopefully we’ve learned from that, that if you pick young blokes, you give them at least a series or so to settle in.”

From 2011 onwards, it at least became normal again that the NSW halves pairing was given the chance to play an entire series. Though even after the 2014 win, a change was made, with Josh Reynolds axed for Pearce.

In the 2018 series win, James Maloney and Nathan Cleary – a Penrith NRL combination – played all three matches. NSW’s 2019 series win was more chaotic, due to both form and injury; the combinations were Cody Walker/Cleary, Maloney/Cleary and Maloney/Pearce.

Luke Keary, a triple premiership winner and Clive Churchill Medallist, was spiked after a single game last year, a series-opening loss. Walker and Cleary delivered a win, then a series-sealing defeat; one that few in NSW believe should have happened, against a depleted Queensland side that was dubbed the “worst ever”.

The churn goes on, with Cleary partnered by Panthers teammate Jarome Luai for this year’s series opener. Finch has backed the move, figuring that the Penrith duo are in sensational form and deserve a chance.

Yet how long that chance will extend remains to be seen and NSW are up against it this year, with the opening matches in Townsville and Brisbane. Cleary looks a long-term fixture for the Blues but Luai is already being shadowed by Jack Wighton, the Dally M Medal-winning Canberra five-eighth who is in the team as a utility.

NSW icon Andrew Johns had picked Wighton at No.6 in his hypothetical Blues team, saying that his big frame and powerful running game was perfect for Origin. If Luai becomes the latest addition to the scrapheap, at least he’ll have some distinguished company.

Finch played just three Origins, thanks to his 2006 axing. He was part of a series win, technically, having made his debut alongside Brad Fittler in Origin II, 2004; a loss for NSW in a 2-1 overall victory.

And he will always have that field goal.

“I didn’t play many Origins but to have your own little piece of Origin history, it’s really special,” he said.

“You’ve always got it, no one can take it away from you. It’s the hardest arena, Origin footy, so to have my own little slice of it is always nice.”

NSW HALVES DURING QUEENSLAND DYNASTY

2006: Braith Anasta/Brett Finch; Mark Gasnier/Craig Gower.

2007: Braith Anasta/Jarrod Mullen; Braith Anasta/Brett Kimmorley; Greg Bird/Brett Kimmorley.

2008: Greg Bird/Peter Wallace; Braith Anasta/Mitchell Pearce.

2009: Terry Campese/Peter Wallace; Trent Barrett/Peter Wallace; Trent Barrett/Brett Kimmorley.

2010: Jamie Lyon/Brett Kimmorley; Trent Barrett/Mitchell Pearce.

2011: Jamie Soward/Mitchell Pearce.

2012: Todd Carney/Mitchell Pearce.

2013: James Maloney/Mitchell Pearce.

2014: Josh Reynolds/Trent Hodkinson.

2015: Mitchell Pearce/Trent Hodkinson.

2016: James Maloney/Adam Reynolds; Matt Moylan/James Maloney.

2017: James Maloney/Mitchell Pearce.

For a daily dose of the best of the breaking news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here!

pin up