Origin decider stirs memories for Souths stalwart

PAUL Merlo only played the one State of Origin.

That’s a bit like saying somebody only won the one Oscar. Or the one Pulitzer.

Still, Merlo wanted more. It didn’t happen. He popped the ligaments in his knee and was never the same.

The one he played was game three, the SCG, 1982. A decider, like tonight’s game.

Merlo, who’s the president of Souths Leagues Club now, was 27. He’d played lock for the Wests Magpies and been picked for City that season, and injuries within the squad prised open the hatch to a Blue jumper.

Two days before the game, a support staffer asked if he’d be ready to step up.

‘‘I said, ‘I’m here, aren’t I?’‘‘ Merlo recalls, bristling at the question 30 years on.

Origin was only three years old, but the rivalry was already seething. The selectors told the players before the game that the reward for beating the Queenslanders would be places on the next Kangaroo Tour.

They lost, 10-5. There were 26 penalties.

It was the game Phil Sigsworth passed in-goal to winger Phillip Duke, who fumbled for Wally Lewis to dive on the ball and score.

Merlo’s never seen himself play. Never watched a DVD of the game. But Lewis, years later, wrote about that night. About Merlo screaming across the field after making a break. About how if he’d only realised he had Brett Kenny in support, he could have changed the course of Origin history.

It used to kill Merlo that he never got another crack.

‘‘For about the first 10 years I couldn’t sleep after a State of Origin.’’

It’s better now. He enjoys watching his son Christopher play for Souths’ reserves. (Merlo guffaws that his boy is the ‘‘slowest, tallest halfback in the Newcastle comp, but he’s playing good footy’’).

Besides, he played an Origin. Just the one.

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