Alfie saves the day: Maroons' masterstroke revisited
IF JOHNATHAN Thurston were to make a shock comeback for Origin III this year, the similarities to the 2001 series would be quite uncanny.
It was for that decider 17 years ago that Wayne Bennett, back coaching Queensland for his third stint, recalled 35-year-old Allan Langer from his self-imposed sabbatical with Warrington to ultimately deliver a stunning victory for the Maroons.
Langer had pulled the pin on his NRL career just eight games into the 1999 season because he had lost his hunger and his love for the game, but ultimately found his way to England before Bennett, in a shroud of secrecy, masterminded the return of his former captain.
"I had no idea Wayne was considering me, none whatsoever," Langer recalled.
"The first inkling came when (former Broncos teammate) Andrew Gee phoned me from City Rowers (nightclub) after quite a few drinks and said Wayne was going to call and ask me to play. But I told 'Gee Gee' to go home and sleep it off, and hung up."
Believing his mate was having a lend of him, Langer said he thought no more about it, not even when Bennett did call the following morning.
"Wayne and I would speak every few weeks, just like a couple of mates catching up," he said. "And even on that day we chatted about other things before he dropped the bombshell."
Langer said that while there was fear of failure, he totally embraced the challenge and prepared for that match better than any other in his brilliant career.
"I didn't want to let anyone down, especially Wayne and my family," he said.
Although many doubters considered it a call of desperation from a despairing coach, Langer rose to the occasion magnificently. He engineered two Queensland tries and scored one himself in a stunning 40-14 victory.
In the 2002 Rugby League Yearbook, historian David Middleton tabled the Langer recall one of rugby league's greatest masterstrokes.
"It was vintage Alf, and he produced a display that will live forever in the game's folklore. All the old skills were there: the stepping, jinking runs, body feints and those bamboozling short kicks," he wrote.
"But, more importantly, there was the inspiration factor. Langer was the childhood hero of many of Queensland's new breed of players and each one of them grew taller as they emerged alongside him to the roars of 50,000 at Brisbane's ANZ Stadium."
In an eerie likeness to this current series, Queensland had put a broom through its team from the previous series, as Brad Fittler did to the Blues before Origin I in Melbourne three weeks ago.
Bennett's new-look team contained 10 debutants, including future internationals Lote Tuqiri, Petero Civoniceva, Brad Meyers and Carl Webb.
Led by new skipper Gorden Tallis, the Maroons won 34-16 in Brisbane in game one but were brought back to earth in the return match in Sydney, beaten 26-8 by a team captained, ironically, by Fittler.
Injuries, and not so much that result, forced changes for the decider, and Bennett's decision to call on Langer was criticised by many, including the Blues most successful coach, Phil Gould.
But Bennett, adamant his decision was minor compared to the gamble Langer had taken on his reputation, doubted the Maroons could have won without their returning champion.
"I love him. He came here tonight, gave everything he had, and walked away a champion," the coach said.
And for Langer, walking in to his parents' home in Ipswich the Sunday night before the game, a few hours after he arrived in Brisbane, remains a precious memory.
"I could see how proud Mum and Dad were. It was then I knew I couldn't let anyone down," he said.