In the sporting world, sledging is a present-tense phenomenon. Someone says something in the heat of the moment, you get angry and then you forget about it. Even when sledging goes too far – such as Billy Slater’s dig at Cory Paterson’s Depression, or Jacques Potgetiers homphobic sledge in the Tahs-Brumbies match earlier in the year – there’s a tacit understanding that it should be forgotten the moment the game ends and the players leave the field. At least, that’s the fantasy. In reality, resentments linger on, especially when the sledge is personal or vicious in some way. And especially when it comes to Origin.
With a regular footy sledge, it’s only a matter of time before the players meet again and hash it out on the field, while it’s only another week before they can channel their frustrations back into footy. Players and pundits complain about the proximity of Origin and regular football, but I sometimes wonder if we need regular football to resume simply in order to absorb some of the lingering frustrations, resentments and energies of Origin. Because, in Origin, everything happens in a kind of intensified present-tense, making it the premier real-time NRL event. As a result, sledges and biffs are more pronounced than at any other time in the year, but players are also expected to forget them the moment they occur in order to get on with the limited time and space that they have to win this most prized of NRL showdowns.
Of course, that’s simply untenable, which explains why Origin nearly always devolves into a series of sledges and biffs so plosive that they have virtually eclipsed the football itself as spectacle. Whole YouTube channels are lovingly devoted to curating, compiling and classifying the Origin biff, while coaches, managers and players tend to be a bit more reckless in their strategies when it comes to Origin as well. If the fantasy of Origin is that it always unfolds in an extended present-tense – just footy, nothing else – then the reality is that it is in fact Origin matches that live on and on in the public consciousness, with grudges going back decades and footy fans forced to flex their long-term memories to engage with the drama at its deepest level. And yet there’s something a bit sameish about biffs – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all – while even sledging is not necessarily a great spectacle either, unless the players happen to be miced up. And in many ways that’s simply not realistic for Origin football, as so many players (most recently Adam Reynolds) have noted. For all its scandal then, the Origin news cycle can also sometimes feel like an intensification of the tabloid news cycle: rehashing the same old stuff as if it’s new.
2015, however, has been a bit of an exception. since the key Origin moment wasn’t a biff, nor even a sledge that was audible at the time. It was the brually contorted facial expressions of two of the key players in the last couple of minutes of the game. I’m speaking, of course, about the showdown between Johnathan Thurston and Mitchell Pearce. Even the most propulsive Origin clusterfights rarely approach the look of utter enmity on the two players’ faces as something apparently unspeakable was spoken between them during these crucial moments. If two halves on the same team often have a special kind of synergy, then two opposing halves – especially in Origin – can often strike up a negative synergy, a unique ability to get under each other’s skin. And while it would all presently be absorbed into the intoxicating high of the Maroons win, that footage stuck around to haunt the media circuit for a couple of days, until Pearce came clean and disclosed to the public that he’d started the fracas with a sledge that was worse, in some ways, than the vilest, most expletive-laden rant you could imagine. He called Thurston old.
Old. That’s about one of the worst insults you can give to someone in a profession in which retirement starts to kick in at about thirty and in which you’re liable to have a mid-life crisis in your mid-20s. In fact, have you noticed how often footy players make key decisions – especially decisions to switch teams or codes – in their mid to late 20s? When you start to glimpse the end of your career at 30, you haven’t got the luxury of a quarter-life crisis. Thinking about it that way puts some of the misadventures endemic to League in perspective. Thanks to a different kind of institutional support and financial infrastucture, Tahs and Wallabies players can transfer pretty seamlessly into corporate positions, both within the Rugby world and out of it, while the AFL has also has a sufficiently robust management structure to absorb some of the brunt for retiring players. But the NRL doesn’t always have those connections and options. For veterans, as well as players who aren’t performing quite brilliantly enough to set up the future as expertly as a Hayne or SBW, that makes some of their indiscretions – some – a bit more understandable.
In any case, it’s no small thing to call a footy player old, let alone in the midst of Origin, let alone in the midst of Origin III, let alone in the midst of an Origin III game that also happens to be a decider. Obviously, at some level, Pearce was speaking on behalf of a Blues outfit sick and tired of copping it for years from one of the best QLD squads in history. Pressured to deliver a definitive NSW victory – even 2014 felt like a Maroons year once Cronk was back in the picture – they instead found themselves caught up in one of the most decisive QLD victories in the Maroons’ glorious reign. Down from the very first quarter, NSW were well and truly smashed by the time Pearce made his quip on the heels of a perfectly executed try from Will Chambers, while even the full force of his animosity wouldn’t prevent Aiden Guerra and Justin Hodges both going to ground five minutes later. Myself, I’ve never seen a team as brutally schooled in Rugby League as the Blues that night, which was all the more confronting in that they’d managed to teach QLD a thing or so themselves in Round 2.
If that weren’t enough, Mitchell Pearce has a special brand of shame when it comes to Origin footy. Not only was he barred from Origin I last year on the grounds of the notorious Kings Cross incident – an incredible decision, given how much the NRL judiciary scambles to excuse any indiscretion to maximise Origin as a spectacle – but his removal from the team opened up the way for Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds to make their name as the first Origin-winning halves duo to hail from NSW in close to a decade. At the same time, Pearce’s stuffup also prevented James Maloney from making his Blues debut, divesting the Roosters in turn from the spoils of an Origin victory. This time around, then, Pearce had something to prove – and by the time he found himself sharing the same patch of field as JT in those final five minutes, it was clear to even the most inexperienced Origin pundit that he wasn’t going to prove it.
So there’s Pearce’s motivation. Frustrated, he lashed out at JT as merely the most sublime member of the squad that had pummelled his team into the ground. Of course, the irony was that JT played like a younger and more experienced player than Pearce over the course of the 2015 Origin season. And that’s JT to a T – experienced, but not old. At 32, he’s statistically one of the outliers in game, age-wise, but statistics sometimes don’t compute on the field. And Pearce must have known all that, just as JT knew that Pearce knew all that. But that kind of stuff doesn’t matter in the heat of the moment. High off a whopping Cowboys season, as well as a smashing QLD performance – even Dane Gagai’s debut outshone some of the most stalwart Blues players – JT delivered the sledge to end all sledges: “You’re the worst halfback NSW have ever seen at Origin level. If you want to touch the shield, your best chance is to go up and touch the Wally Lewis statue out the front of the stadium.” If the crowd hadn’t been roaring at that point, you could have heard a pin drop – and watching Pearce’s face as the penny dropped must be one of the most brutal Origin moments in the last decade.
In a period when sledges seem ever more scandalous and personal, there was something bracing about JT’s retort. It proved that the best way to sledge a player on the field is to confront him front and centre about his game. Far from abusing Pearce, or making a personal jab, Thurston just pointed out – forcefully – what he already knew: that his game was subpar and had been throughout his whole Origin career. Nothing that you can say to another footy player is worse than pointing out to them, emphatically, that their game has been rubbish. In the end, that’s always more galvanising than the torrents of personal abuse and hate speech that pass for a top-grade sledge these days, and there was something about the way Thurston cut to the chase – and cut through Pearce’s personal attack – that was classy in the extreme. As a Blues supporter, I personally think that Thurston was right on the money in his assessment of Pearce as well, but whatever your take on Pearce’s merits, you’d have to admit that JT’s retort was positively polite compared to the balls-to-the-wall banter that usually typifies an Origin showdown. Imagine how Greg Bird would respond if you called him old. There’s a movie in that somewhere.
Of course, it takes a certain amount of gravitas and heft to craft a sledge as withering and footy-focused as JT’s, as well as a certain amount of experience. You can’t imagine Dane Gagai having the balls to tell Greg Bird that his ball-handling skills were off. Or maybe you can. Once again, it would make a good movie. Probably a horror film. And that’s the real irony here, the irony that ensures that this sledge will shape the way we return to Origin next year, even if we’re pretending it won’t. The irony was that Pearce accused Thurston of being old, but that Thurston’s very response – the very authority that allowed Thurston to make such a response – proved that he was experienced, rather than old. Anything but old. As a staunch Blues supporter, I recognise that Pearce is – or has been – a critical part of our lineup, and as a footy fan I respect his prodigious talent and taste for the sport. But I’ve always found JT one of the most winning and charismatic players in the game, as well as one of the most experienced and dignified when he takes the field, so I took a certain pleasure in the way this one played out. In a game – and season – that seemed to leave little comfort for Blues supporters, there was at least a golden moment for the Thurston supporter. And that was my silver lining to Origin III, all the more enjoyable because it was so unexpected, five minutes away from one of the most crushing climaxes in NRL memory.