State of Origin 2017: Former NSW Blues players open up about the shame of losing to Queensland Maroons

Gutted: Brett kimmorley. Photo: Craig Golding
Gutted: Brett kimmorley. Photo: Craig Golding

Brett Kimmorley was at Sydney Airport on Tuesday morning, waiting to catch a plane to Brisbane for the opening match of this year's State of Origin series, when history finally caught up with him.

He'd managed to avoid it for 12 years, but there it was on a television in the corner at the boarding gate: replays of Origin highs and lows.

"I haven't seen it since I threw it," Kimmorley said. "If it goes over [Queensland fullback] Matt Bowen's head, there were two unmarked Blues players and things could've been different for me for the rest of my career."

Kimmorley is referring to the infamous intercept pass he threw in game one of the 2005 series. Bowen plucked the ball out of the air on NSW's 40-metre line and then raced untouched to score the match-winner in golden point extra-time.

When it came time to find a scapegoat, the NSW selectors sliced off the little halfback's head and served it to the rest of the state on a silver platter. He was dumped and Andrew Johns rushed back in.

On the night of game two, Kimmorley and his wife, Sharnie, went to a high-end restaurant so they could avoid the game. He didn't want to watch it. The owner, though, had other ideas and positioned them near a TV. Inspired by Johns, NSW won games two and three and the series. Kimmorley was given one of the winners' rings in the wash-up because he had been part of the campaign.

"But I didn't want it," Kimmorley recalled. "So I gave it to my father. That moment had a big influence on me. I didn't throw a right-to-left pass for the rest of the year. I never played 'instinct football' beyond that and that's the type of football I'd always played. I was playing for the Sharks then, and we were leading the competition heading into Origin. After that, we scraped into the finals. For the rest of my career, I could never get away from that pass."

Kimmorley will forever be remembered as one of the many players – and, in particular, halfbacks – chewed up and spat out by the brutal experience of playing State of Origin for NSW.

Only a handful of animals eat their own: hamsters, sand tiger sharks, chickens, polar bears ... and former Blues players, who are more than prepared to tear down the current player than lift him up.

A reminder of this came two weeks ago when select media were invited to interview six former Blues captains in the NSW dressing-room at ANZ Stadium. Ray Price delivered this line to the Daily Telegraph: "I'll tell you one bloke I wouldn't pick – Mitchell Pearce. He had worn out his welcome."

When the story appeared the next day, many simply rolled their eyes. Price has become a rent-a-quote over the years. His brutal assessments of current players barely register. But this was one was very personal and some former players were seething. Braith Anasta was one of them and he wasn't holding back when Fairfax Media contacted him on Tuesday.

"They can say what they want," he said. "But my opinion is that it doesn't work. Some say to use it as motivation. When you're someone like Mitchell Pearce, and you've done it for so long now, and you've been criticised and smacked pillar to post, it wears thin. It actually brings you down.

"We shouldn't be humiliating our players. They could voice it to the coach, but to do it on a scale that will directly affect not only the player's performance but also affect them mentality ... It's degrading. And the biggest insult of all is that it's coming from one of your heroes. Someone you look up to.

"For the best interest of NSW and their players, we have to be careful about which forum we choose. We want results. We want victories. We want them heading into a game feeling confident, invincible, ready to play the game of their lives. We don't want them second-guessing themselves and thinking, 'Am I really good enough for this? The people who I respect and love are questioning me and whether I should be here or not ..."

Price, of course, is entitled to his opinion. Says his former Parramatta and NSW teammate Peter Sterling, who this year took over from Bob Fulton as the adviser to Blues coach Laurie Daley: "I defend Ray Price's right, through what he's achieved, to have an opinion – even if I totally disagree with it."

Origin footballers should be able to wear a few barbs from a few old players. Price does not represent the large group of former NSW stars who want to support rather than condemn. Queensland have perpetuated and thrived on the myth that only they understand the true meaning of Origin. Someone tell that to Steve Mortimer.

The Maroons also have their own Ray Price in former forward Greg Dowling, although many suspect his pointed comments over the years about ageing Queensland forwards are by stealth rather than out of malice.

That said, there's nothing in rugby league quite like the witch hunt that follows a NSW defeat. There's always a price to pay. Believe me, few editors accept the suggestion that perhaps Queensland's side full of future Immortals was simply too good.

Former Blues captain Brad Fittler, who last week was named one of the NSWRL's inaugural Hall of Fame inductees, blames a ruthless Sydney media and animosity between NSW's 11teams.

"We've just got nasty media," Fittler, who works for Channel Nine, said. "That's the way it is. Origin is always good reading. We've got nine clubs in Sydney so for everyone who likes Mitchell Pearce, there are supporters from eight clubs who don't."

Fittler has seen first hand how much Origin defeat can impact on players when they return to club football. In 2008, when he was coaching the Roosters, Origin ruined his season. "We had Braith, Mitchell, Willie Mason and Craig Fitzgibbon in the NSW side," he recalled.

"NSW lost the series and they were all hammered. All of them. We won four from 11. We were leading the competition heading into Origin then we finished fourth. It totally derailed the players, it totally derailed some of them for the rest of their careers. I realised how much the criticism affects."

That final match of 2008 was Anasta's last. In 2005, he'd played alongside Johns as NSW swept to victory and felt invincible. After that, he was in and out of the side, a yo-yo of emotions.

"When you lose, and you're in a key position, you're gone," he said. "You might get one more chance, you might play one average game and if you don't win you are gone. If you don't make your presence felt you are gone and you know that going into the match. You lose a lot. Your confidence is shot to bits. It takes a while to recover. It can be highly embarrassing if you lose. It's a lonely place when you lose."

Kimmorley says Origin is the "scariest match you will ever play", but he says there is a silver lining when the witch-hunt is finally over and the state has put down its pitchforks and torches.

"I carried the scars from that intercept pass for the rest of my career," he said. "But when I was given another chance to play Origin late in my career, I appreciated it more. Because I knew that nothing in footy could ever feel that bad."