State of Origin 2016: Kevin Walters must embrace off-field madness to thrive as Maroons coach

State of Origin 2016: Kevin Walters must embrace off-field madness to thrive as Maroons coach

When Mal Meninga took over the Queensland coaching job in 2006, State of Origin was already one of the marquee events on the rugby league calendar, even if it had survived a number of premature deaths and was in the midst of another identity crisis.

With Queensland not having won a series outright since 2001, there were loud ponderings about the future of the concept, how long the rivalry could flourish and whether the Maroons could field a team with sufficient clout to dethrone the deep and damaging Blues.

History says they could. The 2006 win would be the catalyst for one of the great winning streaks in Australian sport, with the Maroons cobbling together eight consecutive series victories in a scenario that was previously unimaginable.

All the while, Origin would rise to become a domestic sporting monster, crushing ratings records like Meninga used to do when he trampled opponents under the famous tree-trunk thighs. Nothing could stand in its way.

Fresh challenge: incoming Queensland coach Kevin Walters.

Fresh challenge: incoming Queensland coach Kevin Walters.

Photo: Getty Images

It rose to such lofty heights that rugby league administrators have been left to try to make the international game relevant all over again, while last year's superb grand final did wonders for an event that had somehow been left to play a sombre second fiddle.

Origin's incredible rise can't be pinned on any one moment, nor person. The series has thrived in an era of all-time greats that were able to elevate the contest beyond previously foreseeable pace and ferocity. The game really was the winner.

Yet it has always been the intrigue and drama off the park that has been the V8 that rumbles beneath Origin's hood, urging it ever upward and almost annually, on the brink of spinning out of control.

Meninga took that role to heart, becoming a master motivator for his side and a major needler to NSW along the way. His "rats and filth" rant will go down in the annals of Origin banter, while his love-hate relationship with former Raiders and Australian teammate Ricky Stuart was riveting, volatile and heart-warming all in one unpredictable package.

His decision to step away from the role and take up the national job has given long-time assistant Kevin Walters the chance to step up to the plate. Given the formidable shadow Meninga cast over the series, Walters must understand the tentacles of the job stretch far beyond winning games of football.

Walters was making all the right noises as his appointment was announced as all was quiet in rugby league land before Christmas.

"It's truly an honour to be in a position to coach such a fine group of players and to be entrusted with the responsibility of developing future Origin talent through our programs," he said.

"I'm really looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead, starting with the QAS Emerging Origin camps in the New Year."

Meninga would win nine of his 10 series in charge of the Maroons, which has left Walters with a task akin to taking over from Wayne Bennett at the Broncos. It will be difficult to greatly alter Meninga's status quo and any early falters will result in immense pressure from expectant fans, most of whom are now conditioned to expect nothing less than victory.

Coaching the Maroons is the Queensland equivalent to captaining the Australian cricket team. Walters has been there and done it before as a player and an assistant but 2016 will present an entirely new and unfamiliar set of challenges.

Phil Lutton

Sports reporter

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