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The Sydney Morning Herald

Alf's back

Author: Steve Crawley
Date: 25/06/2001
Words: 992
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 21
The secret's out: Allan Langer has jetted in for a short holiday and a starring role in Origin III, writes Steve Crawley.

`Hey coach, why did it take you so long to call?" With those quizzical words Queensland rugby league legend Allan Langer last week secretly accepted coach Wayne Bennett's offer to return from England and play halfback in the 2001 State of Origin decider against the NSW Blues at ANZ Stadium on Sunday.

This is the footballing equivalent of King Richard returning home to England: only bigger.

``I haven't slept since Benny [Bennett] rang me last Saturday," Langer, travelling with two training bags and no other luggage, told the Herald last night. ``For two years not a night has gone by without me dreaming about playing for the Broncos and Queensland. I want to come back and play good football. It's a one-off game.

``I watched OriginI at home by myself, and the enthusiasm was great. Game two they [Queensland] just didn't have the enthusiasm. I just hope I can help out in game three.

``I haven't been able to tell anyone. Not even my parents. Dad's going to have a heart attack when he hears the news. I wish the game was tomorrow. A packed ANZ Stadium, the biggest Origin crowd ever in Brisbane. I just want to play."

After sending daughter Elizabeth and her boyfriend Ben Ikin off to Brisbane International Airport last night to collect the little No7 they call Alf, Bennett and wife Trish sat and reflected on three weeks of planning and hoping, even dreaming.

In the days leading up to OriginII, Queensland were in trouble. Sure, they had exploded with a surprise win over the Blues in the first game of the 2001 series without injured halves Shaun Berrigan and Ikin. Now, though, rampaging captain Gordon Tallis was out for the season with a neck injury.

Bennett couldn't sleep. He grabbed the pay-TV remote control, hit the red button and, bang, there was Langer building a man-of-the-match performance for battling Warrington against hot-shots Wigan. Still he had no Tallis, but if things turned pear-shaped in OriginII, at least the brooding coach now had an abstract plan for the decider.

Firstly, Warrington had to be convinced to grant their star leave, which, surprisingly, proved a cinch as the club understood how its little big man had never been given an on-field farewell from Australia befitting a 12-season hero.

Next came the tough bits: convincing Queensland selectors that Langer, who turns 35 on July30, still had the legs and desire to play Origin; and, finally, to get the Australian Rugby League, which governs the showcase competition, to create history by making an English-based player eligible to compete.

One selector in particular proved harder to budge than the NSW front row, reminding Bennett, who coached Langer from 1987 to '99, that modern Maroons Lote Tuqiri and Carl Webb were just six years of age and tucked into bed when the halfback won the first of his three Origin man-of-the-match awards.

The selector budged, though.

So to Sydney and the ARL. Queensland Rugby League chairman John McDonald was packed off on Wednesday to solve the question of eligibility but under strict instructions not to release the name of the player, only that he was English-based and had a clearance from his club. This was, after all, still a secret.

McDonald returned with a smile broader than the Big Pineapple, suggesting the ARL had thought the player to be Hull's Jason Smith.

So Warrington knew, the Queensland selectors and board of directors knew, the Bennetts, Ikin, plus Allan and Janine Langer, and yet until yesterday the secret didn't escape a coup in itself.

The cloak-and-dagger went right down to Langer being booked London-Singapore-Brisbane under a false name. He told airline crew on QF 521 he was coming home for a little break. Some holiday.

At 34 years and 336 days, he becomes the third-oldest player to represent at Origin level, behind Queensland's first captain, Arthur Beetson (35 years, 163 days), in 1980 and NSW winger John Ferguson (34 years, 348 days) in 1989.

What a chapter in Origin lore. At the height of his career a former teammate, the late Peter Jackson, enthused that Langer had become more than simply a sporting hero in Queensland. ``He's a craze, like yoyos," Jackson said.

By 1999, though, there were more downs than ups and his form, if not his star, was fading. Bennett had always said Langer would give the game away the moment he stopped performing. And so it came to be after a round-seven draw with the lowly-placed Cowboys in Townsville. Benched without injury for the first time, the fifth child of a carriage builder on the railways stood up in all his glory and retired.

Some months later, with the Broncos building a record winning sequence and path to the 1999 finals, he approached Bennett about a comeback, but the coach mumbled no. ``Even the Prime Minister has given you a public farewell," Bennett said. ``There's always England."

Now this: a sell-out crowd at ANZ Stadium for the third and deciding game of a wonderful 2001 series, an identical situation to Lang Park and Origin III of July15, 1987, when Queensland won 10-8 with Langer man of the match.

Still, that was then, an age ago, when the No7 everybody said was too small to make it to the top worked for $200 a week on Ipswich Council. Come Sunday night Langer will join Wally Lewis on 31 Origin appearances, a record bettered only by Mal Meninga (32). Even if you are aged just six, stay up for this one.

What a secret.

League round-up Page 27

ORIGIN III: THE TEAMS

Origin III at ANZ Stadium, Brisbane, Sunday 8pm

NSW: Mark Hughes (Newcastle); Adam MacDougall (Newcastle), Ryan Girdler (Penrith), Matthew Gidley (Newcastle), Jamie Ainscough (St George Illawarra);Brad Fittler (capt, Sydney), Trent Barrett (St George Illawarra); Andrew Ryan (Parramatta), Bryan Fletcher (Sydney), Adam Muir (Northern), Jason Stevens (Sharks), Luke Priddis (Brisbane), Mark O'Meley (Northern).Reserves: Michael Vella (Parramatta), Matt Adamson (Penrith), Steve Menzies (Northern), Craig Gower (Penrith).

QUEENSLAND: Darren Lockyer (capt, Brisbane); Lote Tuqiri (Brisbane), Daniel Wagon (Parramatta), Paul Bowman (North Queensland), Wendell Sailor (Brisbane); Paul Green (Sydney), Allan Langer (Warrington); Darren Smith (Bulldogs), Petero Civoniceva (Brisbane), Brad Meyers (Brisbane), John Buttigieg (North Queensland), John Doyle (North Queensland). Reserves: Chris Walker (Brisbane), Kevin Campion (Warriors), Carl Webb (Brisbane), Dane Carlaw (Brisbane).

Referee: Bill Harrigan (NSW)

ALLAN LANGER

Nickname: Alf. Born: Ipswich, July30, 1966. Position: Halfback. Height: 165cm. Weight: 79kg. Broncos games: 241 (all first grade). Representative honours: Australia 1988-1994, 1997-1999; State of Origin (Queensland) 1987-1994, 1996, 1998; Tri-Series (Queensland) 1997.State of Origin appearances: 30.State of Origin points: 37: nine tries, 1 field goal.Captain: Broncos 1992-99; Queensland 1996-98; Australia 1998.AAP

 
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