The top 50 rookie performances in State of Origin history revealed

By Chris Stead

In Game 1 of the 2021 State of Origin series, 4 players will make their debut! With that in mind, Finder has crunched the numbers to reveal the best rookie performances in State of Origin history.

It’s the pinnacle of rugby league. The toughest, fastest, most skilful and most passionate arena you can find for this great sport. It’s where legends are born and reputations forged. If you can shine in the State of Origin cauldron, your name will burn brightly forever.

Such is the physical and mental toll of State of Origin upon its participants, experience is held in high regard. In fact, Queensland has won 11 of the last 13 series, putting faith in the belief that those who have been there and done it before are best suited to do it again regardless of club form. The sky blue and maroon jerseys are not lightly earned and when the time comes to blood a State of Origin rookie, no matter what their NRL club experience, fan scrutiny peaks.

In 2018 we saw a host of changes, especially with New South Wales where 12 players made their debuts on the State of Origin stage. With a further 4 in the Queensland team, we saw 16 new faces take to the field.

Due to injury, retirement and lack of form, 2019 started in much the same vein. Game 1 of the 2019 State of Origin series sees 8 rookies make their debuts. There are five from New South Wales and three from Queensland. The COVID ravaged 2020 saw even more fresh faces, especially in a Queensland side that looked so inexperienced on paper as a result.

More and more players join the legend of State of Origin every year. How did they fare? How did their performances match up against the best State of Origin rookie performances we've seen since the first game way back in 1980.

Damien Cook's rookie State of Origin performance was one of the best of all time.

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Finder's State of Origin Rookie Hall of Fame

Making an impact in your first ever State of Origin outing is something fans will never forget. Finder, an official State of Origin partner for the 2019 series, set out to discover just who left the biggest mark in their rookie performance by comparing decades of data.

In order to do that, we assembled the player match statistics for every game to date, way back to 1980. It worked out to over 3,700 individual performances! We then got fantasy rugby league algorithm guru Jason Stead to put together a formula to rank these performances. He created the NRL SuperCoach Planner, which is a tool used by a previous winner of the competition.

His formula combines the fantasy rugby league scoring systems used by the NRL and SuperCoach to maximise the stats available. As you can imagine, records aren't quite as detailed as they are today for games that stretch right back into history. Still, we collected more than enough data from across the 37 series and 2 initial standalone games in 1980 and 1981.

(Note: We ignored the showcase game in the United States.)

The metrics measured include tries, goals, average metres per run, offloads, tackle busts, line breaks, line break assists, try assists, errors, tackles and missed tackles. In addition, the algorithm rewards bonus points on a sliding scale for run metres and tackles, which allows for extra credit to be given to those truly super-human performances.

Scoring the players

This alone did not give us the top rookie performances. We had to filter out all subsequent games by players after their debut. We also then cut out all rookie performances made from the subs bench, so we could offer 2 different top 50s. One is focused on the rookie debuts. The other is focused on the run-on rookie performances. The latter means a player didn’t count as having their "rookie performance" until they were in the run-on team. This ensured the comparisons were as fair as possible.

(Although as you will see, there was one player whose performance as a sub was so good it cracked into the list alongside the starting players!)

When we applied this formula across all the data we were stunned by the winning performance. Note: To help give you a sense of scale on the list below, the average score for a performance by any player in State of Origin according to our algorithm is 55 points. The average performance by a rookie in a State of Origin is even lower, at 46 points.

Top 50 performances from a State of Origin rookie

Rank Player Year Game State Position Points
1 BRETT HODGSON 2002 Game 1 NSW Fullback 222
2 GARY BELCHER 1986 Game 2 QLD Fullback 150
3 ANTHONY MINICHIELLO 2003 Game 1 NSW Fullback 146
4 LES DAVIDSON 1987 Game 1 NSW Prop 145
5 IAN FRENCH 1985 Game 3 QLD Second row 142
6 DON MCKINNON 1982 Game 3 NSW Prop 134
7 BRAD MACKAY 1989 Game 3 NSW Lock 127
8 WILLIE TONGA 2004 Game 2 QLD Centre 124
8 BRIAN TO'O 2021 Game 1 NSW Winger 124
10 BILLY MOORE 1992 Game 2 QLD Lock 123
11 CAMERON MUNSTER 2017 Game 3 QLD Five-eight 122
12 BRIAN JOHNSTON 1984 Game 3 NSW Centre 121
13 LINDSAY JOHNSTON 1983 Game 2 NSW Prop 119
14 WAYNE PEARCE 1983 Game 1 NSW Second row 117
14 HARRY GRANT 2020 Game 3 QLD Sub 117
16 JIM LEIS 1980 Game 1 NSW Lock 116
17 STEVE HANSON 1988 Game 3 NSW Prop 115
18 DAMIEN COOK 2018 Game 1 NSW Hooker 112
19 NOEL CLEAL 1984 Game 1 NSW Second row 111
19 GAVIN MILLER 1983 Game 2 NSW Second row 111
21 PAUL MERLO 1982 Game 3 NSW Second row 110
22 PAT JARVIS 1984 Game 3 NSW Prop 109
23 CAMERON SMITH 2003 Game 3 QLD Hooker 108
24 CHRIS CLOSE 1980 Game 1 QLD Centre 107
25 SCOTT PRINCE 2004 Game 1 QLD Halfback 105
26 LUKE BAILEY 2002 Game 1 NSW Prop 103
27 ADAM MOGG 2006 Game 2 QLD Winger 101
27 JOSHUA ADDO-CARR 2018 Game 1 NSW Hooker 101
29 MARK GASNIER 2004 Game 3 NSW Centre 100
29 ROYCE AYLIFFE 1982 Game 3 NSW Prop 100
31 JOHN DOYLE 2001 Game 1 QLD Sub 99
32 ARTHUR BEETSON 1980 Game 1 QLD Prop 98
32 MARK O'MELEY 2001 Game 2 NSW Prop 98
34 BEN ELIAS 1985 Game 1 NSW Hooker 97
35 SAM BACKO 1988 Game 1 QLD Prop 96
36 PETER WYNN 1984 Game 3 NSW Lock 95
36 TREVOR GILLMEISTER 1987 Game 1 QLD Second row 95
38 RAY PRICE 1981 Game 1 NSW Lock 94
38 GARY LARSON 1991 Game 1 QLD Lock 94
40 STEVE EDGE 1980 Game 1 NSW Hooker 93
41 ROBBIE FARAH 2009 Game 1 NSW Hooker 92
41 MARIO FENECH 1989 Game 1 NSW Hooker 92
41 GEOFF BUGDEN 1983 Game 1 NSW Prop 92
44 ETHAN LOWE 2019 Game 3 QLD Second Row 91
44 DAVE BROWN 1983 Game 2 QLD Prop 91
44 DAVID WILLIAMS 2009 Game 2 NSW Winger 91
47 PAUL GREEN 1999 Game 3 QLD Sub 90
47 GRAHAM EADIE 1980 Game 1 NSW Fullback 90
47 STEVE FOLKES 1986 Game 1 NSW Second row 90
47 CHRIS PHELAN 1981 Game 1 QLD Lock 90

1. Brett Hodgson (Game 1, 2002, Fullback, NSW) = 222 points
Far and away the greatest performance ever. His record 374 run metres led the way, but 14 tackle busts, 6 line breaks, a try, a try assist and a goal didn’t hurt either. Read the full untold story of Hodgson's origin heroics here.

2. Gary Belcher (Game 2, 1986, Fullback, QLD) = 150 points
One of Origin's most consistent performers, right from his first game Belcher was a threat in attack. His brilliant 321 run metres included a crazy 17 tackle busts and 5 offloads. He also supplied three line break assists.

3. Anthony Minichiello (Game 1, 2003, Fullback, NSW) = 146 points
2 tries on debut helped The Count to number 3, alongside a staggering 11 tackle busts and 224 run metres.

4. Les Davidson (Game 1, 1987, Prop, NSW) = 145 points
Feared enforcer Les Davidson took his intimidating presence in the NRL straight to the Origin arena, with 19 runs, 32 tackles, 7 offloads, a try and a line break assist heaping on the points.

5. Ian French (Game 3, 1985, Second row, QLD) = 142 points
One of the great forward debuts, he averaged 15 metres per run, scored a try and set up another, while stunning the Blues with 7 tackle busts and 3 line breaks.

6. Don McKinnon (Game 3, 1982, Prop, NSW) = 134 points
Controversially, this was Don’s one and only Origin appearance and boy did he make an impact. 30 runs for 200 metres, with 7 offloads alongside 32 tackles. What a performance.

7. Brad Mackay (Game 3, 1989, Lock, NSW) = 127 points
As well as holding up the engine room with 16 runs and 37 tackles, Mackay also made a big impact in attack with 2 offloads, 5 tackle busts, a line break and a try assist.

8. Willie Tonga (Game 2, 2004, Centre, QLD) = 124 points
One of the few centres to make an impact on debut, Tonga can thank his try, his 6 tackle busts and his 11 metres earned per run for his excellent points performance.

9. Billy Moore (Game 3, 1992, Lock, QLD) = 123 points
The quintessential Queenslander, Moore was a known workhorse. The 20 runs and mammoth 48 tackles he made in his debut game was topped off with a try.

10. Cameron Munster (Game 3, 2017, Five-eight, QLD) = 122 points
You don’t need a long memory to remember Munster’s exploits from two years ago. As well as averaging 12 metres per run, he provided 2 offloads, 5 tackle busts, a line break, a line break assist and a try assist.

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Top 50 performances from a State of Origin rookie
(in first run-on performances)

This ignores previous games as a substitute.

Rank Player Year Game State Position Points
1 BRETT HODGSON 2002 Game 1 NSW Fullback 222
2 ANTHONY WATMOUGH 2009 Game 3 NSW Lock 162
3 GARY BELCHER 1986 Game 2 QLD Fullback 150
4 ANTHONY MINICHIELLO 2003 Game 1 NSW Fullback 146
5 LES DAVIDSON 1987 Game 1 NSW Prop 145
6 IAN FRENCH 1985 Game 3 QLD Second row 142
7 ANDREW FIFITA 2017 Game 1 NSW Prop 140
8 DON MCKINNON 1982 Game 3 NSW Prop 134
9 COREY PARKER 2012 Game 3 QLD Lock 132
10 BRAD MACKAY 1989 Game 3 NSW Lock 127
11 WILLIE TONGA 2004 Game 2 QLD Centre 124
11 BRIAN TO'O 2021 Game 1 NSW Winger 124
13 BILLY MOORE 1992 Game 2 QLD Lock 123
14 CAMERON MUNSTER 2017 Game 3 QLD Five-eight 122
15 BRIAN JOHNSTON 1984 Game 3 NSW Centre 121
16 LINDSAY JOHNSTON 1983 Game 2 NSW Prop 119
17 WAYNE PEARCE 1983 Game 1 NSW Second row 117
17 SCOTT HILL 2000 Game 2 NSW Lock 117
17 HARRY GRANT 2020 Game 3 QLD Sub 117
20 JIM LEIS 1980 Game 1 NSW Lock 116
21 STEVE HANSON 1988 Game 3 NSW Prop 115
22 DAMIEN COOK 2018 Game 1 NSW Hooker 112
23 NOEL CLEAL 1984 Game 1 NSW Second row 111
23 GAVIN MILLER 1983 Game 2 NSW Second row 111
23 GLENN LAZARUS 1990 Game 3 NSW Prop 111
26 PAUL MERLO 1982 Game 3 NSW Second row 110
27 PAT JARVIS 1984 Game 3 NSW Prop 109
28 CAMERON SMITH 2003 Game 3 QLD Hooker 108
29 CHRIS CLOSE 1980 Game 1 QLD Centre 107
30 BOB LINDNER 1984 Game 3 QLD Lock 106
31 SCOTT PRINCE 2004 Game 1 QLD Halfback 105
32 LUKE BAILEY 2002 Game 1 NSW Prop 103
33 ADAM MUIR 1995 Game 3 NSW Second row 102
34 ADAM MOGG 2006 Game 2 QLD Winger 101
34 JOSHUA ADDO-CARR 2018 Game 1 NSW Hooker 101
36 MARK GASNIER 2004 Game 3 NSW Centre 100
36 ROYCE AYLIFFE 1982 Game 3 NSW Prop 100
36 DAVID TREWHELLA 1989 Game 3 NSW Hooker 100
39 JOHN DOYLE 2001 Game 1 QLD Sub 99
39 LUKE RICKETSON 2001 Game 2 NSW Lock 99
41 ARTHUR BEETSON 1980 Game 1 QLD Prop 98
41 MARK O'MELEY 2001 Game 2 NSW Prop 98
41 ROBBIE KEARNS 2000 Game 1 NSW Prop 98
44 BEN ELIAS 1985 Game 1 NSW Hooker 97
44 MICHAEL HAGAN 1989 Game 3 QLD Halfback 97
46 SAM BACKO 1988 Game 1 QLD Prop 96
47 PETER WYNN 1984 Game 3 NSW Lock 95
47 KURT GIDLEY 2008 Game 3 NSW Fullback 95
47 TREVOR GILLMEISTER 1987 Game 1 QLD Second row 95
50 RAY PRICE 1981 Game 1 NSW Lock 94
50 GARY LARSON 1991 Game 1 QLD Lock 94
50 BOYD CORDNER 2016 Game 1 NSW Second row 94

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