It was the biggest con job in State of Origin history and Paul Green was in it up to his eyeballs.
Game III of the 2001 Origin series is always remembered as ‘Alfie’s comeback’ after coach Wayne Bennett secretly flew longtime Queensland halfback Allan Langer back from the UK to inspire the Maroons in the series-decider.
Less well remembered is the key role Paul Green played in that historic match, and the subterfuge surrounding it.
As Green’s friends and former rugby league colleagues struggled to come to grips with his tragic death on Thursday morning, shock has slowly begun to give way to happy memories of the 49-year-old’s great success as a player, coach and family man.
Yesterday, Gene Miles, Queensland’s head of selectors during that historic 2001 series, recalled arguably the Maroons’ most memorable match, and Green’s part in it.
‘Wayne always loved that cloak and dagger stuff,’ Miles said. ‘He loved to keep the opposition guessing.’
And never did Bennett have to pull a rabbit out of his hat more than for that series.
It all began when Langer, Brisbane Broncos captain and Maroons halfback in 30 matches, suddenly retired after a poor start to the 1999 season.
The final straw was being taken from the field by Bennett during a Round 8 match against the North Queensland Cowboys, whose halfback was Paul Green.
Langer and Green were always the best of ‘frenemies’. Fierce competitors on the field, off it their similar outgoing personalities drew them together and they would always share a beer and some laughs whenever they met.
But there was no laughter for Langer after that game.
‘Greeny put Alfie into retirement up in North Queensland,’ Broncos’ coach and Langer’s childhood friend and longtime halves partner Kevin Walters said on Friday. ‘He beat him twice in the one movement. That night Alf officially retired from the Broncos’.
Gorden Tallis, who would follow Langer and Walters into the Broncos’ captaincy, remembers the night well.
‘Wayne pulled Alfie off because he wasn’t having the impact a fresh player could have had,’ Tallis recalled. ‘I don’t think that had ever happened before in Alfie’s career.
‘That night we were having a drink at the bar after the game and I noticed there were tears in Alf’s eyes. I went up and asked him what was wrong. He told me everything was fine and that I shouldn’t worry but later I saw him talking pretty seriously with Kevvie.
‘When we got on the plane to head home, we knew something was wrong. When we travelled, the players always sat down the back and Wayne sat in business class.
‘This time Alf sat up front with Wayne. They must have had a long talk all the way because when we got together for training on the Tuesday, Wayne told us Alf had hung up the boots. Alf had been too emotional to tell us himself.’
With Langer out of the picture Green and the Roosters’ Adrian Lam shared the number seven jersey for the Maroons under the coaching of Mark Murray in 1999 and 2000.
The 1999 series was drawn, meaning 1998 champs Queensland retained the trophy, but 2000 was a disaster for the Maroons. NSW secured a clean-sweep with a 56-16 thrashing in Game III during which the Blues taunted their opponents with a pre-rehearsed try celebration.
The upshot was that Bennett, who had stepped down from the role after winning the 1998 series, returned as Origin coach.
With Adrian Lam heading to the UK, Green was now the State’s number one halfback. In a 2010 interview, he told me he could sense an immediate change when Bennett took the Maroons for their first training camp.
‘Everyone had written us off when the team was announced,’ he told me. ‘We had a lot of young blokes like John Doyle and John Buttigieg that no-one had heard of and some old ones like Kevin Campion.
‘In Sydney the papers were calling us Dad’s Army and all the rest of it. They were right into us and as far as we were concerned that was all the better. The whole theme of that camp was to put in for your team-mates. We weren’t focused on the result, more the process.
‘We spoke a lot about the concept of the team, Ian Healy was involved, and he spoke to us a lot about playing cricket for Australia and what it was that made it special to be part of that team. Little by little it all started to come together for us.
‘There was a change of attitude to other Origin camps I’d been in. All Origin camps are intense but this one wasn’t so much about beating NSW, it was more about putting in for each other and for Queensland.’
Everything went perfectly for Queensland from the start of Game l, with Lote Tuqiri slicing through the NSW defence the first time the Blues kicked downfield, before passing to Darren Lockyer who scored.
‘I remember thinking, ‘how good is this?’ and it just kept going,’ Green recalled. ‘It was one of those nights when everything seems to go perfectly.’
The final score was 34-16.
Queensland captain Tallis said he was ‘walking on air’ as he left the field.
‘I couldn’t wait for Game II,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t wait to see what we could achieve.’
For Tallis, Game ll would never come. Two weeks later he was playing for Brisbane against the Northern Eagles when he suffered a serious neck injury in a seemingly innocuous tackle.
Without their inspirational leader the Maroons lost the second match 26-8, leading Bennett to make one of the biggest – and sneakiest – calls of his career.
Before the 2000 season Allan Langer had received an offer to play for the Warrington Wolves club in the UK. Bored with life on the sidelines, he accepted and away from the pressure of the NRL, had started to regain his mojo.
Knowing he needed something special to get the Maroons faltering campaign back on track, Bennett reached for the phone.
By all reports it was a short conversation. Bennett asked Langer if he would make a mercy dash across the world to play one game.
Langer answered, ‘What took you so long?’
Bennett hung up the phone and made another call. To Paul Green.
When a player gets a call from the coach a few days before a team is announced it is rarely with good news. Especially after a loss.
When Green heard Bennett’s voice on the other end of the line he feared the worse, especially when the coach’s opening words were, ‘Greeny, we’re making a change …’
With Langer coming into the side, the obvious move would be to drop Green or, at the very least, move him to the bench. Instead, the selectors gambled on playing him in the unfamiliar role of hooker.
One of the journalists writing about Green in the past few days said Green gave him the impression that he felt his playing skills were undervalued.
That obviously wasn’t the case amongst the Queensland selectors in 2001.
‘There was no way Greeny wasn’t going to be in the side,’ Miles said. ‘We knew he wouldn’t let us down. He had those beautiful soft hands, and he could read the play as well as anyone. He was all about the team, and when Wayne told him about the change, he jumped at it.’
Far from being intimidated at the thought of playing such a big game in an unfamiliar position, Green was excited at the thought of playing alongside his longtime rival.
‘I knew before the team was announced,’ he said. ‘Wayne contacted me and said I’d have to shift positions. Then he told me that Alfie was coming back into the side and geez I was happy.
‘I didn’t give my situation a second thought. Everyone was committed to getting the result, not thinking about themselves, and this was Alfie Langer we were talking about; a great bloke to have around, a great bloke to have in camp, and one of the best players of all time.
‘We were all so excited and the hype was unbelievable. It all made it such a bigger occasion.’
For Green, the hardest part was not letting anyone know what was going on. Wanting to keep NSW in the dark, Bennett refused to divulge his side until the last possible moment.
When reporters raised the outrageous possibility of bringing Langer back for the game, Bennett and the other selectors laughed them off.
Even when Langer was in the air – flying under a false name – the Queensland brains-trust continued playing ducks and drakes.
The initial team released to the press left the halfback position blank and had Green at five-eighth.
With journalists waiting outside the Maroons selection room for the team list, Miles walked out and headed for the lift.
When one asked what was happening, he told them, ‘Sorry fellas, can’t stop. I’ve got to pick up Alfie at the airport.’
‘They all laughed,’ he recalled, ‘but I was telling the truth.’
By the next day the cat was well and truly out of the bag and the media frenzy was off the scale. One outlet led its front-page coverage with exclusive news that Alfie’s mother had made him bacon and eggs for breakfast.
On the Sunday night, Langer played a blinder, scoring a spectacular try and inspiring a series winning 40-14 victory.
At hooker – but wearing the number six five-eighth jersey as per the original team list – Paul Green was everything the selectors had gambled on, his play-making and kicking skills providing a one-two punch with Langer.
‘It was a huge time,’ Green said. ‘There were plenty of reasons for us to want to win: Gordie getting injured, Alfie coming back and it was Wendell Sailor’s last Origin before going to rugby union.
‘Most of all, I’d playing the series the year before. I hadn’t played in the third game, but they’d given us a flogging and they were very arrogant about it.
‘There was all this stuff in the papers about Origin being dead and Queensland not being able to compete and all that other shit we’d heard before. That all made us more focused as a team.
‘We knew how important it was for us to win. For the game, and for Queensland.’
Langer and Green would never get another chance to play together after that night, but they remained close mates until Green’s untimely death.
Like everyone who knew him, Langer was hit hard by the tragedy.
‘I was at home by myself when I heard the news and I cried,’ he told journalist Robert Craddock. ‘It’s devastating. I still can’t believe it.’
With Green’s death leading to calls from the likes of Waye Bennett and Kevin Walters for the NRL to pay more attention to coaches’ and ex-players’ mental health, Gene Miles spoke the thoughts of many.
‘He was such a good bloke,’ he said. ‘Great company and a very clever man. He had so much going for him, and when I heard what had happened I just thought, ‘no that’s not Greeny, that’s not who he was’. I think that’s the thing about mental health issues. That’s what it can do to you. That wasn’t Greeny. Not the Greeny we all knew.’
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