Twenty years ago, in the boardroom of Brisbane’s famous XXXX brewery, rugby league’s most famous teetotaller had the Queensland Rugby League unveil plans for the biggest ruse in State of Origin history, when three little letters became part of rugby league folklore: TBA.
A year after he sensationally brought Allan Langer home from the United Kingdom to win the series decider, Queensland coach Wayne Bennett masterminded a way to use a judiciary loophole which left the two states at loggerheads before game two in 2002.
A little-known rule that allowed a NSW or Queensland player not to be named for his state at the start of a week-long camp, and subsequently serve any suspension for his club days before an Origin game, was enacted and it had the rugby league world up in arms. Even the Maroons admitted it wasn’t in the spirit of the game.
Speaking to all the main players about the Lote Tuqiri debacle, when QRL chairman John McDonald only read out 16 names at the team announcement to allow the Broncos winger to serve a suspension and return for the interstate clash in Brisbane, we recall a bizarre week of Origin schadenfreude.
‘I had no idea’ – the plan
Lote Tuqiri: “We played the Dragons the week before and I was put on report [for a dangerous throw on Ben Ross]. I thought after the game, ‘yeah, it wasn’t too bad’. But I forgot about the carryover points. They told me after the game, and then I started to get nervous. You want to play Origin and represent Queensland. We wanted to make a better account of ourselves after the first game when Andrew Johns was in control. It was a really nervous time for me, and then I was facing a one-game suspension. I knew there were rumblings in the background about, ‘how we can get around this?’”
Wayne Bennett: “It was my idea. We were desperate. I knew we needed Lote with what he brought, and the rules were the rules at the time. We just used them to our advantage. There was no one much smarter than [former QRL general manager] Ross Livermore when it comes to the rules of the game. I remember talking to him about it and he said, ‘no, we can do this Wayne’. I said, ‘let’s do it, Ross’. It was the year after we brought Alf home so we were pretty hot at the time.”
Queensland chairman of selectors Gene Miles: “Wayne came back in 2001 after the debacle of 2000, and with him he brought me and that’s when there was a bit of a shuffle-up with the selectors. He said, ‘I want Gene to be the chairman of selectors and I don’t care who else we put there’. He said, ‘why couldn’t we do this?’ We obviously approached Ross and said, ‘this is what we want to do, is it doable?’”
The announcement – in the brewery
Gene Miles: “I thought Wayne was crazy because I didn’t think we would ever get away with it. Wayne coming up with something like that, he was desperate to have Lote in the team and we thought we would do whatever we possibly could to get him in the team. We thought we’d run the gauntlet. He must have put a lot of thought into it. Ross wasn’t the bravest person in the world back in those days, with all due respect. He would never buck the system, and he stuck by the rules. Kudos to Ross because he got the right result for us.
“We used to meet at Queensland headquarters, which was over at the Gabba. They were renting space out of a Queensland government building. For the announcement of those sides, we used to do it at the XXXX brewery and that was where the famous TBA was launched, in the boardroom of the complex there. I remember after the announcement I was asked who would be goalkicker, and I said, ‘TBA, to be backed up by [Darren] Lockyer’.”
Lote Tuqiri: “They told me probably 24 hours beforehand we were going to do it and I was going to be named for the Broncos [who subsequently beat the Tigers in the birth of the “Baby Broncos” under Craig Bellamy]. I was just relieved when the team came out there was a TBA. I don’t know how they got around it.”
Nick Livermore (Ross Livermore’s son): “He had a value of honesty and integrity. He always knew what the rules were and always stuck to them, whether it was finance, grassroots or media. He really reflected that anti-Sydney or NSW sentiment where he thought they were running against us, and we’ve got to try to bend it. I never knew anything at all of the plan, and that’s the way it was.”
ARL CEO Geoff Carr: “With Origin rules, we tried to be precise with everything. But the wording was often difficult. When Wayne wanted Alfie to come back from England, they came and saw us first. That wasn’t dragged out of the blue to surprise everybody, but on this occasion they did drag it out of the blue to surprise everybody. I do recall ringing Ross straight away. We didn’t have a set-to because we always got on really well, but we spoke honestly to each other. I said, ‘you can’t do it’. He said, ‘tell me where I can’t’. Technically, he was right. While it wasn’t the right thing to do, he could do it. We tried as much as we could to convince him he couldn’t do it, or shouldn’t do it, but there was no rule that prevented him from doing it.”
All the gear, and no idea when he would train
Lote Tuqiri: “I had to go into camp, but I couldn’t train with the team. I was just on the sidelines watching, helping out with a few things. I remember watching the first few sessions thinking, ‘how good is this? I’m playing Origin, I get all the kit and don’t have to do anything’. And in the first few sessions Billy Johnstone flogged them. As a big Islander kid who plays in the backs, I didn’t really like conditioning or fitness. I was rubbing my hands together.”
Wayne Bennett: “He didn’t have a reputation for training well. He couldn’t come near the joint until after his suspension was served. We didn’t name the player, and when he served his suspension we named him. I remember there being a story about faking an injury to bring him into the team, but I didn’t want to do that because that was cheap. I just didn’t want to do it that way.”
Gene Miles: “It was a shitfight because they did blow up about it. But Wayne had our support to do whatever we had to do, if there ever was such a loophole.
“That was closed up pretty quickly once we did it.”
The tale of two wingers as TBA sets new record
Lote Tuqiri: “I actually felt fresh. I felt really good having a couple of days off. That was a godsend. I don’t know if it related to the game and scoring three tries, but I definitely felt refreshed and enthused. The management and state had my back. You get into camp and from a Queensland point of view, you represent everyone from the Torres Strait all the way down to the Tweed. I wanted to go out there and do them proud. They were willing to stick their neck out for me. And then I scored the most points (18) in a game for Queensland. I think the next day was Queensland Day. It was all written for me in a sense. I remember picking up the paper and one of the headlines was about Lote doing it for Queensland Day. My mum still has the clipping of that.
“It was also Justin Hodges’ debut. It could have been his first and his last game when he threw two passes in the in-goal which led to NSW tries. When I catch up with Justin, we often talk about that game in different terms obviously. That would have been a collector’s item.”
Wayne Bennett: “We were desperate. We wanted him to play because he was such a good player, and he proved us right in the end with his performance.”
Geoff Carr: “Around Origin, our discussions are always robust. Ross would put some crap in the paper, and ring me before it was printed and say, ‘this is what I’ve said today’. And then he’d laugh. They were Queensland first, second and third – and they would do anything to win.
“If you remember down the track they picked Israel Folau when he’d already announced he was going to AFL. Anything within the rules where Queensland thought they could get an advantage, they felt it was their duty and right to take it. It didn’t really sour relations, but it was just another way to take another advantage of the rules the way they were. I’m not being critical of them. I never lost respect for Ross through all these things because I knew his motives. He just wanted Queensland to win, he didn’t care [how]. But I couldn’t have done the same thing. I was the CEO of the NSWRL and the ARL. It would have been hypocritical of me to take advantage of an ARL rule if I was the CEO.”
The aftermath – and TBA living to this day
The Maroons, having ridden Tuqiri’s hat-trick in game two for a 26-18 win at the old ANZ Stadium in Brisbane, went on to retain the shield when Dane Carlaw scored a last-minute try to salvage a draw in game three in Sydney.
The match featured Gorden Tallis ragdolling Brett Hodgson over the sideline after Tuqiri told the skipper of a banner referencing his mum in the crowd. Tuqiri missed an after-the-siren conversion from out wide which would have won the series outright for the Maroons.
Gene Miles: “We had Greg Dowling fire up Dane Carlaw too before that game. Wayne was a genius and Greg had moved back up north by that time. He made a quote in the paper that said, ‘he looks like Tarzan and he’s been playing like Jane’. That was an oldie, but a goodie. And Dane probably had one of his best games ever.”
Wayne Bennett: “My biggest regret about that game was Darren Lockyer definitely scored a try close to full-time and they took it off us. And Locky knew that we’d won the series [retained the shield] and he gave the last kick to Lote. I nearly killed him for that.
“Bringing Alf home was the biggest [move]. That was huge at the time. Lote got a lot of publicity when the team came out with 16 players. We didn’t cheat, we just worked within the rules. There’s no way NSW would have let it happen if we were cheating. Queensland would be the same. If NSW tried to pull a swifty, we would have carried on too. They then changed the rules after that.”
Nick Livermore: “It added to the theatrics of what Origin was. Every year seemed to produce something new. I feel like Origin has lost a little bit of that spice now. In life I value following the rules and doing the right thing, but if you can bend them without breaking them, absolutely [do it].”
Lote Tuqiri: “Did TBA change the series? I don’t know. To find that loophole was a masterstroke in itself. I still get asked questions about TBA. In fact, some people still call me TBA. It’s a good memory for me, and I’m always happy to sit down and talk about it with people. It was an amazing time in my career and life, to score three tries in a State of Origin game. Even reminiscing about it now, it puts a smile on my face.”
Watch the State of Origin series exclusively live and free on Channel 9 and 9Now.
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