Queensland captain Cameron Smith and the boys relax during a round of golf in camp at Coolum prior to State of Origin I.
Who wants an all-expenses-paid, six-night stay in a five-star luxury resort? A world-class golf course... private beach... even a roaring 10-metre-tall replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. (Whose name, by the way, is Jeff... Jeff the T-Rex.)
Sound too good to be true?
When my boss informed me I’d be spending the week leading up to State of Origin I in ‘Camp Maroon’ with the Queensland squad, I cashed all my professional chips. Surely this was greatest gig of all time? Very few people are blessed to be able to do what they love for a living. After 12 years of covering rugby league the length of the Sunshine State from Tweed to Mossman, here I was about to embark on what would be my professional holy grail. A week spent observing the inner workings of one of the greatest dynasties of rugby league’s modern era.
I packed my bag; shirts, shorts, exercise clothes (that never got a workout), bikini (that was never worn either in case my boss reads this) and headed for Coolum. My cameraman and I walked into a room where the official Maroons team photo was being taken, before the players were released into the clutches of a hungry, waiting media pack with smart gadgets, microphones, cameras and recorders at the ready. It was a ‘catch-and-release’ scenario, not too dissimilar to big game finishing. There’s timing your approach, using the correctly baited questions, weighing up your prized catch and releasing him back into the wild to be chased by other keen reporters. When it was all over, just some slightly askew official sponsor signs and empty water bottles remained. The media feast was both swift and savage.
The next few days fell into a routine of catching the team on an early morning beach swim, a mid-morning training run and sighting Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston enjoying a playoff on the 18th under the shadows of Jeff the T Rex. Life was good. Life was simple. That was the most startling thing about the Maroons’ camp. Behind the incredible moments of Origin that have spurred the Queenslanders to seven straight series victories, behind the pyrotechnics thrilling the sell-out crowds in the theatre of state against state, behind the emotive pre-match promos featuring bone-jarring hits and miraculous tries... things behind the scenes were much simpler. The players wake up, have breakfast, train, rest, train, eat and sleep. Apart from getting the golf cart up onto three wheels, or Smith crouching in bushes to bark at the next unsuspecting passer-by, Mal keeps it uncomplicated.
There is no secret formula, no hidden sessions, no special treatment. I didn’t quite understand.
Surely a side that will go down in rugby league history as one of the greatest has a magic weapon? Nope. They are just there to play for one another. It’s cliché and boring but that’s the bare truth of the Queenslanders. They just love Origin and love coming together every year for the mid-season spectacle that captures the largest audience around Australia.
So Game One went the way of the Blues. The Maroon men may have been sluggish from kick-off but since that dewy Wednesday night at ANZ Stadium, the Queenslanders have been thinking about two things: how to salvage the series on rugby league’s spiritual home at Suncorp; and what sort of ‘welcome’ mat to roll out for Paul Gallen. As they prepare to head back into Camp Coolum next week, Mal has a different task. They are still the defending champions aiming for eight straight, but the Blues are only 80 minutes away from breaking Queensland’s golden Origin run. The coach isn’t one to spook easy but I wonder if Mal will keep it simple on the Sunshine Coast?
The one thing he won’t have to worry about coaching is pride and passion. I thought I was the only one who was blessed to love what I do for a living, but as it turns out so do these blokes.