Jeff Preston gets Origin Honor!
Colin Van der Voort only needed to straighten his knee. "Sounds simple, doesn't it?" the Penrith great laughs. "Straighten your knee and you've cleared the medical to play for NSW. If they asked me right now, I could do it no problem." But not in 1991. No, back then Van der Voort's left knee was struggling after a reconstruction done the previous winter, when he snapped all four ligaments, was ... er, botched. To the best of his memory, big Col reckons surgeons tied the ligaments too tight. "Or maybe they tied them too short," he says. "Whatever it was, when the doc said I'd have to straighten my leg to make the team ... mate, I couldn't."Which is why we're talking to him now. Why we've tracked down this retired Panthers backrower - a No.13 who should've also toured with the Kangaroos - to an Emu Plains juvenile justice centre.
Van der Voort, see, is among the 30 players this column wished played Origin. Among the frontrunners of an elite group who - whether unlucky, unwanted or simply ineligible - never quite made it to the Wrestlemania of rugby league. Sure, some like the man dubbed "Dutchman" got close. Others even closer. Like Newtown utility Graeme O'Grady, who received a sky blue jersey in 1981 but never made it on to Lang Park. But imagine how different the landscape would be if they had? If Origin had been opened up to the magic of Marshall, the backflips of Blacklock and the warrior passion of Wiki. If SBW had worn blue. Issac Luke maroon.
And as for confronting British madman Adrian Morley in the cauldron? Well, safer options include handing your missus a chainsaw while revealing an adulterous past with her sister. "But Origin footy, even us Kiwi boys consider it the pinnacle," Luke attests. "I love the event so much I'll even sit through the Australian national anthem. "Playing exactly as you'd expect a footballer who once tackled goalposts for practice, Luke comes in at No.6 - exactly that many ahead of Wests Tigers backrower, and ineligible Pommie, Gareth Ellis."No matter where you come from, every player would love to experience Origin," he confirms. "I know that combat and rivalry; it's something I'd cherish."
In a tribute to some of the great Origin smokies since 1980, this list also rounds out with Jeff "Captain America" Preston, the Philadelphia special forces soldier who, while anonymous to most NRL fans, spent the best part of 15 years captaining the US Tomahawks against everyone from Ireland and Russia to our own Kangaroos.
Another unlikely nominee is PNG prop Makali Aizue, who gets the nod over countryman Stanley Gene for the fact he squats 250kg, plays like a shaven wrecking ball and will walk two days just to attend national team camps. Shortly after arriving in England to play Super League, Aizue famously caught a goose in the park behind his unit. Then he killed, plucked and left the bird to bleed out in his bath tub ... later cooking it up for guests.
Honestly, who beats a side with Aizue and Fui Fui Moimoi in the front row? "Especially when Fui's actually desperate to play for the Blues," NSW Origin prop Tim Mannah says. "I know because he's spoken to me about it - even looked into the eligibility rules when he wasn't getting a run for the Kiwis. "I wish it had come off because Fui's style, it's made for Origin. "Blues hooker Michael Ennis says Ellis gets his vote. "Tough, strong, huge workrate ... you've gotta have him up high, don't you?"
Yep, at 12. Six spots above Canterbury favourite Darren Britt, whose continued snubbing come Origin time became a sore point to rival John Hopoate and that index finger. "It's incredibly hard to believe Darren never wore a sky blue jersey," league historian David Middleton says. "He was a regular in Australian teams for three years. Played nine Tests, a World Cup final ... he can consider himself incredibly unlucky."
Middleton says St George winger Blacklock - who scored 100 tries in 114 games for the Dragons - was another among a group of notable omissions that also included Andrew Walker, Lance Thompson, Luke Patten and Famous Amos Roberts.
Middleton also mentioned always-in-the-mix Tiger Chris Heighington, who politely declined our interview request before adding that he hoped to be off said list next year. "And if you were using the Supercoach system, he'd already be there," says The Daily Telegraph's very own numbers man Tom Sangster. The boys from Fox Sports Stats also push the likes of Marshall and Warrior Feleti Mateo, who boasts most offloads and more linebreaks than any other forward in the NRL.
Yet still they all come in behind Van der Voort, the retired backrower and now Panthers Hall of Famer, who only a few weeks back watched Origin II from within the giant blue rinse that is Blatchey's Blues. "Even wore the wig," he laughs. And as for the knee? "Went back in for a second reconstruction days after they ruled me out," he says. "Have been able to straighten the bloody thing ever since."