Why the Maroons' legendary loyalty is a myth
MAL Meninga carried the same team throughout an unprecedented State of Origin dynasty, right?
Wrong. Big Mal ended the Origin careers of no less than 30 players during his 10-year tenure, always pulling the trigger at the right time as he won nine series, including eight in a row.
And the common theme? Big Mal shot the role players. Players kind of like contentious Kevin Walters selections Justin O'Neill, Aidan Guerra and Jacob Lillyman, even Nate Myles, 31, who has been a superb servant for Queensland but got picked one too many times on loyalty.
Great players get loyalty. Legends get to retire from Origin. Players on the rung below get kicked out the back door, becoming a has-been or never-was. For more than a decade, Queensland rumbled on just fine without them.
That's what worked for Meninga: keep the champion core, refresh and revitalise the team by gradually and strategically phasing out expendable players with younger, in-form replacements. It was a steady, pragmatic process, in contrast to a headless and desperate NSW selection strategy that turned over far more players than Queensland.
But Walters didn't follow the template, picking several same-olds in poor form and paying the price to the tune of a record Origin I thumping from the resurgent Blues. It was a curious stance, given he snubbed iconic fullback Billy Slater for a comeback in the same round of selection.
Sharks Test winger Valentine Holmes could have been in for O'Neill (Dane Gagai to centre); Cowboys beast Coen Hess for Guerra; firing Titans prop Jarrod Wallace for Myles; and revitalised Brisbane big man Korbin Sims, or underrated Cowboy Ethan Lowe, for Lillyman.
Some or all may make the cut for Origin II, with Walters facing widespread calls for change.
Some changes this series (on top of debuts for Dylan Napa and Anthony Milford) may have been prudent forward planning, given the Maroons will lose Johnathan Thurston and potentially Cooper Cronk for next season, with Sam Thaiday also nearing his end.
Though Queensland has prided itself on loyalty, Meninga never let sentiment trump the ongoing health of the team. These lists bring sharp clarity to the ruthless undercurrent of his reign:
Retired from Origin under Meninga (2006-15): Steve Price, Darren Lockyer, Petero Civoniceva, Justin Hodges.
Just four players, all legends. They were joined by 19-Origin star Corey Parker (347 NRL games) in 2016.
Departed Origin under Meninga: Danny Nutley (Super League), Israel Folau (AFL/rugby), Karmichael Hunt (AFL/rugby), Brent Tate (injured, retired), Jharal Yow Yeh (injured, retired), Ben Te'o (rugby).
Axed from Origin under Meninga (including players from the Origin III 2005 team he overhauled, with 11 changes for Origin I of 2006, his first game in charge): Matt Bowen, Ty Williams, Paul Bowman, Matt Sing, Brad Thorn, Ben Ross, David Stagg, Chris Flannery, Clinton Schifcofske, Rhys Wesser, Josh Hannay, Adam Mogg, Carl Webb, Dallas Johnson, Tonie Carroll, Steven Bell, Neville Costigan, Antonio Kaufusi, Michael Crocker, PJ Marsh, Ben Hannant, Scott Prince, Ashley Harrison, Willie Tonga, David Shillington, Matt Ballin, Dave Taylor, Dane Nielsen, Chris McQueen, Daly Cherry-Evans.
That's 30 players. Only a few - Thorn most notably - have claims to greatness, while the rest all did their job before being shuffled off without apology, ushering in younger replacements. Some played bit parts, some were long-serving. All were expendable in the name of keeping a foot on NSW's throat.
The most explicit axings came in 2013 after Queensland lost the series-opener, with Meninga sacking Harrison (15 games) and Shillington (eight games) for Origin II. The veterans never played Origin again, while Josh Papalii and Cherry-Evans debuted in that game and McQueen in the previous match.
"It's difficult making changes but I felt we needed some fresh blood," Meninga said.
"The reason is we have some young kids who have been in our system for a few years. Guys like Josh and Chris have been playing particularly well ... and they have forced their way into the side."
Papalii has survived. McQueen and DCE are already gone, with the Manly halfback facing stiff competition to ever return, from younger stars like Milford, Ash Taylor, Corey Norman and Ben Hunt.
So the Maroons' legendary loyalty only extends so far. And during the dynasty, it has not applied for more than a game or two for anything less than superstar players.