Queensland had always prided themselves on their gutsy State of Origin performances up until one dark night in 2000. That was when they were thumped 56-16 by the New South Wales Blues in the third and deciding game of rugby league’s annual showpiece event.
The ease of the Blues’ win was emphasised by a post-try team celebration that saw Bryan Fletcher throwing the ball like a hand grenade after he’d scored, while the rest of his teammates ducked for cover. Both the loss and that incident infuriated the Queensland Maroons team and its supporters.
Setting the stage
The Queensland selectors reacted by bringing in super coach Wayne Bennett and a host of new young players for the 2001 series. They used the stinging loss in the third game of the 2000 series and Fletcher’s post-try celebration as motivation.
The Maroons were the underdogs but surprised the Blues to win the first game of the series at home at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. The Blues turned the tables though to level the series in the second match in Sydney. Once again, the series would come down to a deciding third game.
That’s when Wayne Bennett pulled a coaching masterstroke. He knew the team needed something extra to win the series.
At the time, Allan ‘Alfie’ Langer was 35 years old and playing in the English Super League, which is a lower standard than the NRL. He’d retired mid-season from the Broncos in 1999 after a decorated career that included four premierships, 30 State of Origin matches for Queensland and 24 Tests for Australia. His last State of Origin appearance had been three years earlier in the last game of the 1998 series won by Queensland.
The comeback call
Bennett made the call and asked Langer if he’d be interested in pulling on the Maroons jersey for the 2001 decider. He was. But Bennett didn’t want New South Wales to know about Langer’s return for as long as possible, so he hatched a plan to fly him back from England under a fake name. He enlisted the help of his now son-in-law and then Broncos player Ben Ikin to pick up Langer from Brisbane airport without the media getting wind of his arrival. It was a successful mission.
Alfie was introduced to his shocked teammates soon afterwards at Maroons training. His return became a huge media story in the days leading up to the decider. Many people doubted whether he’d still be able to compete at the top level.
They shouldn’t have worried. There was a deafening roar when Alfie ran onto Suncorp Stadium for the third and deciding game of the 2001 State of Origin series. There was an even louder roar when he snuck over for a first-half try on the way to steering the young Queensland side to a 28-8 halftime lead. The Maroons went on to win the match 40-14, reclaiming the Origin shield. Langer’s come back for that match is now part of State of Origin folklore.
The experience also rekindled his career. He signed on for a final season with the Broncos and played in Queensland’s winning State of Origin team in 2002 before finally hanging up his boots for good.
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