As the rugby league world diverts its attention to next Wednesday’s State of Origin series opener in Sydney, Flashback Friday recalls the prominent role of a Cantabrian in the first-ever decider 42 years ago.

The runaway success of Origin’s one-off matches in 1980 and ’81 – largely due to Queensland’s stunning upset wins in both clashes – saw the concept expanded to a three-match series in 1982.

New South Wales chalked up their first Origin win in the series opener 20-16, before Queensland forced a decider with an 11-7 result in game two. Australian referees were used for the opening two games, but the tiebreaker called for a neutral whistle-blower – and Canterbury’s Don Wilson got the nod.

Wilson was the third overseas referee to control a State of Origin fixture; Great Britain’s Billy Thompson was in the middle for the inaugural 1980 showdown, while New Zealand’s Kevin Steele handled the 1981 match.

The brother of Canterbury stalwart and Kiwis rep Wally Wilson, Don Wilson had refereed the 1976 and 1978-80 Canterbury Rugby League premiership grand finals and was already known to some of the Origin combatants after controlling an Australia-France Test in Brisbane in 1981.

Wilson, described as Canterbury’s version of flamboyant and controversial Australian referee Greg ‘Hollywood’ Hartley, certainly left his mark on the historic Origin bout at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Decked out in his New Zealand referee’s kit, Wilson blew a whopping 26 penalties (which remains the equal-most in Origin football), as well as despatching Blues firebrand Les Boyd and Maroons duo John Dowling and Wally Lewis to the sin-bin.

Queensland led 5-3 at halftime, though NSW was lucky to be on the scoreboard through Phil Duke’s try. Replays showed the debutant winger stepped into touch and fumbled the ball.

Wilson inadvertently played a significant part in the lead-up to the match-winning try – a moment that consigned Duke, and to a lesser extent NSW fullback Phil Sigsworth, to State of Origin infamy.

Midway through the second half, he penalised the Blues for a scrum infringement near the Maroons’ line. Multiple publications have recorded Wilson’s penalty as an erroneous incorrect feed call against Blues halfback Steve Mortimer, with Maroons No.7 Mark Murray having fed the scrum. But footage shows the penalty was correctly given for NSW hooker Max Krilich kicking the ball out of Murray’s hands before he could put it into the scrum.

The historically misinterpreted call was compounded for the home side when Wilson marched Mortimer 10 metres for backchat after querying the decision.

Lewis kicked to the NSW in-goal at the end of the ensuing set, before Sigsworth – caught by a Queensland chaser – flung an ill-conceived pass to Duke, who dropped the ball. Maroons skipper Lewis pounced for what proved the decisive try in a 10-5 victory.

Only one non-Australian referee has controlled an Origin match since: England’s Robin Whitfield in the 1983 decider.

Meanwhile, the Australian Rugby League hierarchy cannot have been too perturbed by Wilson’s performance at the SCG – he was appointed to the Kangaroos’ trailblazing Test against Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby later that year. He also controlled a France-Great Britain Test in Carcassonne and a KB Cup semi-final between Brisbane Firsts and Manly at Lang Park in 1983.

Wilson later refereed the epic 1987 CRL grand final, his first in seven years and the last of the famous run of four straight deciders between Halswell and Hornby.

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