AT a quarter-full MCG 20 years ago, a Blues player produced an unprecedented but little-remembered piece of State of Origin folklore.
That same game, his NSW teammate copped a never-forgotten shafting.
The hero was John Simon, elevated from the bench to starting halfback after an injury to makeshift hooker Andrew Johns, with Geoff Toovey pushed from No.7 to No.9. Simon kicked a field goal that won not just the game, but the series – an Origin first.
The victim of circumstance at the mighty ’G was back-up hooker Aaron Raper, who could easily have gone from interchange to starter in his Origin debut but ultimately sat on the bench all night. He never played a minute of Origin, all thanks to coach Tommy Raudonikis.
Simon (via The Daily Telegraph): “Once Andrew Johns was ruled out, I was told I would be starting the game.”
Raper (via The Sun Herald): “I just remember being freezing cold. I fixed that up by having 1000 bourbons later on.”
Here’s how an extraordinary Origin game unfolded and defined two unique rep careers.
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SIMON’S UNPRECEDENTED FEAT
Simon was playing for his local club the Illawarra Steelers when he first got an Origin call-up, in 1992. His comeback five years later came when he was at Parramatta, having been shown the door at the Roosters in 1996, thanks to the Tricolours preferring Adrian Lam – the Queensland halfback Simon opposed in the 1997 Origin series.
Simon played the first game of the series off the bench, before fate intervened with Johns’ injury exit. Still wearing his No.16 reserves jersey, Simon started in the halves alongside Eels teammate Jim Dymock. Mecurial ball-player Dymock was one of four Bulldogs who famously defected to the ARL-aligned Eels from the Super League-aligned Bulldogs ahead of the divided ’97 season.
As it turned out, a 43rd-minute knee injury to Dymock ensured that Simon remained in the game to make a historic play – condemning Raper to an unwanted slice of history in the process.
Raudonikis later said that with Dymock out of the game, he was not prepared to take off his main general-play kicker and goal-kicker. The Blues had seen a 14-0 lead clawed back to 14-all by the Maroons early in the second half and it stayed that way until the 69th minute.
Then up stepped Simon, in his third of just four Origin appearances. He lined up a field goal attempt from about 28 metres out, on a tricky angle over to the right, kicking off his right boot … and he nailed it. 15-14 NSW, which it remained after Robbie O’Davis and Julian O’Neill missed field goal shots for Queensland.
Simon, who reckoned he’d otherwise had a “shocker”, became the first player to win an Origin series with a field goal. He remained the only player to have done so right up until Cooper Cronk’s stunning Origin III strike for Queensland in 2012.
Simon is still the only NSW with a series-winning field goal to his credit and is one of just seven players to have even won an Origin game with a field goal, alongside Allan Langer, Origin II 1992 @ Lang Park (5-4), lost series 2-1; Brad Fittler, Origin III 1996 @ Lang Park (15-14), won series 3-0; Mat Rogers, Origin I 1999 @ Lang Park (9-8), drew series (retained shield); Shaun Timmins, Origin I 2004 @ Stadium Australia (9-8), won series 2-1; Brett Finch, Origin I 2006 @ Stadium Australia (17-16), lost series 2-1; Cooper Cronk, Origin III 2012 @ Lang Park (21-20), won series 2-1; and Cronk again, Origin I 2015 @ Stadium Australia (11-10), won series 2-1.
It was a wonderful achievement for a mighty fine player in his own right, who shone with a raft of big names missing in the year of rugby league’s greatest turmoil.
Far from his elation, still on the bench, was Raper…
TOMMY’S EXPLOSIVE RAPER SNUB
In denying Raper a single second of game time, Raudonikis hadn’t dished out your regular brutal snub. He’d done it to a player who idolised him as a kid … and who happened to be the son of Immortal and NSW selector, John Raper.
Capped by a Tommy crack that he’d “forgotten” to use the Eels hooker, the snub enraged the Raper family – especially the great ‘Chook’, who reportedly threatened to take his son to Super League in an outburst after the game.
“I didn’t (confront Raudonikis) but I did discuss it openly with people,” Raper told The Sydney Morning Herald. “They were of the same opinion as I was, but when Tommy takes the reins he can do what he wants to.”
He also told The Daily Telegraph: “I would have loved to have played on that ground myself. I don’t know if Aaron will get another chance. But he has complete faith in the coach who has to live and die by his decisions.”
So why did it happen? According to the Telegraph’s late, great Peter Frilingos, Raudonikis had been totally overruled on his preferred hooker. The chain-smoking larrikin wanted Western Suburbs Magpies rake Ciriaco ‘Cherry’ Mescia, who never even got a mention from selectors behind Raper and Jim Serdaris.
But Tommy got the last laugh, as it were.
The snub also devastated Aaron Raper’s mother, Caryl, who told The Sun Herald: “During the game, as the clock started running down, I shed a few tears for him.
“Aaron just looked so alone on the bench. I felt so sorry for him.
“I could only imagine how he was feeling. I know it broke my heart. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the sight of seeing him sitting there all alone on the bench.
“I just couldn’t understand why Tommy (Raudonikis) did it, but he must have had his reasons.
“I was just sitting there with tears in my eyes.”
Publicly at least, Aaron Raper took it best of anyone in his family at the time, giving this explanation to The Sunday Telegraph.
“I was upset, everyone in my family was upset, but whatever happened happened and it’s no good being dirty at Tommy Raudonikis or anyone,” he said.
“I used to love Tommy as a kid, and I was stoked to be in the team. It was a first for me and I would have liked to have got on the field, but I’ll take the jumper.
“Originally I thought I was going to start, but Tommy pulled me aside and told me I wouldn’t be starting.
“I thought I was going to get some time, although I was never given an indication of when -I was told I might get a run in the back-row.
“After the game, Tommy came up to me and apologised. He said the circumstances didn’t arise for me to get on.
“I guess it was one of those things. I wasn’t happy, but I had to accept it.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m not filthy at anyone.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s been blown out of all proportion just because I have the name and my dad’s in the limelight.”
Yet resentment had set in by the next season, when he said his rep footy hopes were over and a hidden agenda was to blame.
“I don’t think I’ll ever play rep footy again,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “Reps aren’t even on my mind after what’s happened to me with the NSW and Australian teams in the past, I’m not interested.
“Unless I’m the best player, because I don’t want any whingeing about it – I’ll step down or something.
“I’m speaking in relation to me being picked for Australia then getting dropped, in relation to not getting a run in the State of Origin, and to different circumstances that no one knows about, except me and certain officials.
“Coaches have their favourite players and that’s why I believe I haven’t had a run, because I wasn’t a ‘favourite’ player.”
Raper was referring to the 1995 Kangaroos World Cup campaign, in which he played one minor game and was omitted from the other matches.
As far as Origin goes, other Blues like Jason Taylor, Brett Mullins and Josh Reynolds have been unused Origin reserves – but unlike Raper, they all went on to play other games.
As for Raudonikis, he did it all again next Origin series, controversially leaving backline flyer Ken McGuiness benched for the entire first game of Origin (though he’d already played for NSW and played five Origins in all).