The Queensland Maroons teams coached by Mal Meninga will live forever.
Winning nine State of Origin series in 10 years is an achievement that may never be bettered, and apart from Big Mal himself, nobody thought it was possible when he took on the job in 2006.
According to Maroons great Wally Lewis, at the start of his reign, Meninga’s aim was to go 10 in a row:
“Mal said we’ve got to set a target, we’ve got to set it high and we’ve got to remember that we’ve got a bunch of young blokes here that are going to flow through.”
Looking back now, ‘flow through’ is almost like saying that Niagara Falls ‘trickles down’. What those young blokes went on to do is the stuff of legend, but in 2006 the outlook for Queensland was bleak.
New South Wales were heavy favourites to make it four series wins on the bounce, but Meninga was unfazed, and he fielded seven debutants in his first game in charge.
The Blues took a series lead thanks to a late Brett Finch drop-goal, and the new coach was criticised heavily after his inexperienced side made a number of costly mistakes. Meninga stuck with his new boys though, and the rest is history.
The way Meninga recreated the fierce Maroons bond from his own playing days might be what he is best remembered for in years to come, but there is certainly more to him than that.
Whether black or white, Meninga taught his players to be extremely proud of themselves and their Queensland roots, something he had learnt as a child from his late father Norman Meninga.
Big Mal traces his heritage to Tanna Island, Vanuatu, the home of active volcano Mount Yasur. His ancestors were among the thousands of South Sea Islanders who were enslaved in Queensland during the 19th century.
Norman Meninga was born into a society in which prejudice against black people was still entrenched, but despite this he married Mal’s mother Leona – a white woman of South African descent.
“In those days mixed marriages weren’t really accepted by the wider community,” Mal said in an interview with Brisbane’s Courier-Mail.
“The way he [Norm] conducted himself helped break down a lot of prejudices – about how relationships could develop and how the community should interact.”
Norm was a rugby league fanatic, and a highly-respected prop forward. His passion for the game saw the Meninga family move from Mal’s birthplace Bundaberg, to Monto, via Maryborough and Wondai.
Mal caught the rugby league bug at an early age, but he still needed to think about a career away from professional sport. At 15 after leaving Maroochydore State High School, Mal joined the Queensland Police Academy, where he would first meet Wayne Bennett.
“Wayne was a constant presence in my early life,” Meninga said of the former constable in 2014.
“We talked about getting fit and skills and life in general.”
Bennett would hand Meninga his first-grade debut at Souths Magpies in 1979, and over the next seven seasons Souths reached the Brisbane Rugby League Grand Final on six occasions.
Meninga’s representative career had also taken off. A try and seven goals for Queensland in the first ever State of Origin match was soon followed by an Australia cap, as the Kangaroos faced New Zealand in 1982.
Meninga lasted less than half an hour against the Kiwis due to injury, but after that early setback he would go on to become an international great.
A centre with the strength to trample over an opposing prop, and the pace to out-run a winger, Meninga was selected for a record four Kangaroos tours. A true all-rounder, he was also an accurate goal-kicker, with the trusty toe-bung his technique of choice. In the 1982 and 1986 tours Meninga helped the Kangaroos finish unbeaten.
Back at club level, after a short stint in England with St Helens, Meninga moved to the New South Wales Rugby League competition with Canberra Raiders, who he would later go on to coach.
After a couple of injury hit years he was handed the Raiders captaincy in 1989, and the club won their first premiership that very season. The Raiders retained their title in 1990 and Meninga was duly named captain of the Kangaroos.
1991 proved a tough year as the Raiders were dogged by salary cap issues and Mal’s 20-year-old brother Bevan was convicted of rape and murder.
Mal would overcome both professional and personal setbacks in 1992 though, as he was awarded the captaincy of his beloved Maroons, before leading Australia to World Cup glory at Wembley Stadium.
Meninga would fittingly end his club career in 1994, by leading Canberra to their third premiership in six years.
Mal’s secret? He was nicknamed ‘Chicken George’ by teammates due to his apparent diet of chicken for every meal – including breakfast. Come on KFC, the advert writes itself.