Big Mal is the man to quell any disharmony
IF HISTORY is the yardstick, talk of the Kangaroos potentially being a divided mob during the Four Nations tournament in England during October and November is pure bunkum.
And even if there was a slight chance of any division on state lines, no one is better equipped to smooth the troubled waters than new coach Mal Meninga.
After all, with Big Mal it’s a case of “been there, done that”.
During Australia’s short tour of New Zealand in 1985 the divide between the Queensland and New South Wales players became a chasm. And the bitterness overflowed to the final State of Origin match that year, played two weeks after the final Test in Auckland.
The Kangaroos – fielding seven Queenslanders and eight Blues – had won the first Test in Brisbane 26-20 before heading over the ditch for the final two Tests at Auckland’s Carlaw Park. With the addition of one more Queenslander – Paul Vautin – the Kangaroos wrapped up the series 10-6 when John Ribot scored on the bell and then landed the sideline conversion.
But in the eyes of the coach – the late Terry Fearnley – it was an inferior performance and for the final Test a week later he changed a winning side. And while it may have been merely coincidental, the four players dropped were Queenslanders.
However, what was not insignificant was the fact Fearnley was also the Blues Origin coach at the time.
Being a member of the media corps covering that tour, I can vouch that ill feelings certainly did exist between certain players. I recall a couple of the dumped Queenslanders sitting in the grandstand and appearing to be not overly upset when the new-look Kangaroos were humbled 18-0 by the Kiwis.
Then two weeks later in Brisbane, following one of Queensland’s four tries in its 20-6 Origin win, dumped Kangaroos prop Greg Dowling publicly berated the sideline-sitting Fearnley, firing a broadside at him and pointing to the scoreboard. While colourful and applauded by the pro-Queensland crowd, it was a poor look for rugby league.
Meninga was part of that calamity, as both a member of the Kangaroos and the Maroons in 1985. And he fully comprehends how shabbily the situation was handled.
But heading off to the Four Nations with a squad almost certainly divided after a tense and at-times hostile Origin series, Meninga is ideally suited to bring the players together. His greatest quality as a successful rep coach has been his man management skills.
And to all those who think the current acrimony between the two state camps is unhealthy, check the history books. After the bitterness of 1985, Australia won all three Tests against New Zealand the following year, then toured England and France and were unbeaten in 20 matches.