Close encounters of the Choppy kind give Maroons belief

Joel Gould |

Qld will aim to retain the women’s Origin shield, with a Maroons legend giving them inspiration.
Qld will aim to retain the women’s Origin shield, with a Maroons legend giving them inspiration.

When Queensland forward Tazmin Rapana “flipped the bird” at the NSW crowd after scoring a try in last year’s State of Origin series, it was also a one-fingered salute to Maroons legend Chris Close.

Close, known universally as “Choppy”, played in the inaugural men’s Origin game in 1980 and was man of the match in a 20-10 win.

Close was invited into camp last year by the Maroons women’s coach Tahnee Norris to speak about what it means to represent Queensland and tell stories about the greats of the past. One of those stories included the 2005 night he, then Maroons team manager, famously “flipped the bird” at the NSW bench after Matt Bowen scored a golden-point try.

Rapana, formerly known as Tazmin Gray, said Close’s words and stories would continue to inspire her in game one of this year’s three-match series at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday night.

“Choppy taught me how to be a true Queenslander,” Rapana told AAP.

“When you hear the historic stories of the pioneers of our game, men and women, Choppy definitely set the tone for us. He brought emotion out in us that I didn’t think I had as a Queenslander.

“I took his stories on board and when I flipped the bird at the crowd in NSW … that was for Choppy.

“That spoke volumes for how much he has impacted my life and the core group of girls that were able to witness what he said to us last year.”

Tazmin Rapana.
Tazmin Rapana in training for the Origin series opener against NSW in Brisbane. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

Rapana was player of the series in the Maroons’ win last year and said Close would be in her heart when she runs on the field.

“That is where I find my Queensland DNA within myself, through stories like Choppy told on the pioneers,” she said.

“Arthur Beetson was front and centre of that conversation and how he prepared for a game like a true Queenslander and then played like one. If our girls can replicate that we will reach our goals and carry that mantle.”

Norris, who also played for Queensland, brought Close into a pre-series camp and then again to present the girls with their jerseys because she knew first-hand what a powerful influence he could be.

“Choppy changed my whole viewpoint of Queensland and what it meant just with his passion when he came in and did my jersey presentation as a player,” Norris told AAP.

“I was one of those players who played for NSW first because it was state of residence at that time. When I first played for Queensland he came in and did the presentation and spoke about how much he loved Queensland and hated the Blues. It was so inspirational.

“I wanted to run through a brick wall for him so I wanted to share that with the girls today and get them to understand the history of the men’s game as well as the women’s. Choppy explaining where that Maroons DNA comes from was a really important message and the girls just loved it.”

Tahnee Norris hugs Tazmin Gray.
Coach Tahnee Norris hugs Tazmin Rapana after a Maroons win on the Sunshine Coast. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

Choppy loved it too.

“When Tahnee asked me in to present the jerseys to the girls I have never felt prouder in my life,” Close told AAP.

“The girls certainly did those jerseys proud.

“The women hold a very special place in my heart from a rugby league point of view.

“I have got four granddaughters and three of them play rugby league already. It is important for them to have a role model similar to what the boys do.

“I think the women are much better role models within the game of rugby league than the men can be.

“That is just because of the game they play. They have chosen to play a pure brand of rugby league not just the way they rip into each other. They play it hard but they play it with a fairness that we don’t see in the men’s game.”

Close had a captive audience with his message.

“They were so engaged and respectful. I never hold back,” he said.

“I speak how I speak and gave them the message that when they play for Queensland they are playing for more than just themselves but every individual that lives and breathes in Queensland. They represent that from a women’s point of view.”

Close was in raptures when he saw Rapana’s tribute to him last year.

“I was watching when she scored the try and put the bird straight up. That was probably me over-sharing a little bit in the address I gave them,” Close grinned.

“Tazmin took it on board and I couldn’t have been prouder. Matty Bowen scored the try in golden point in 2005 after we’d been belittled and ridiculed all week by the opposition.

“(Flipping the bird) was a perfect comeback for me to recognise that. There is a photo of it that gets a run this time of year. When I did it I just happened to be with two of my favourite rugby league players of all time … Petero Civoniceva and Carl Webb.”

AAP