Sydney As the rest of the world revs up for the Olympics in Beijing, Sydneysiders are throwing themselves headlong into what they call the 'Festival of the Boot' - the annual State of Origin rugby league contest between New South Wales and its despised northern neighbour, Queensland. Invented in 1980 as a one-off publicity stunt, the State of Origin is now the biggest thing on the Sydney sporting calendar, generating more passion, newspaper headlines and sponsorship dollars than any other domestic contest. Origin mania has even spread throughout the Pacific. The three-match series is watched avidly in rugby-playing nations such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. But nothing exceeds the response in Papua New Guinea, where the event has a quasi-religious following and villagers gather around communal television sets kitted out in blue (NSW) and maroon (Queensland) footy shirts. Queensland are odds on favourites to retain the title, which they have held since 2006. Exactly why this inter-state clash has become so popular is hard to fathom - although the intense rivalry between the two Eastern seaboard states is a big factor; as are the dramatic on-field punch-ups. 'Origin remains the most spectacular success Australian rugby league has ever known,' said Ray Chesterton, a respected commentator. 'It unites supporters in NSW and Queensland in tribal enmity against each other.' Tensions were notched up for the 2008 series, which kicked off in Sydney last night, when it emerged that Queensland had recruited a Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach to beat the 'grapple tackle', a type of neck lock used by some NSW players. Elsewhere, league officials were hosing down criticism that cross-border recruitment is turning the state-versus-state contest into a farce. Six of the current Queensland squad were not actually born in the Sunshine State: three are from New South Wales, while others came from New Zealand and Fiji. 'Queensland are cheating - and it makes my blood boil,' said Tommy Raudonikis, a former Blues' halfback. Such pre-match jousting is not rare when Queensland and NSW lace up the boots. State of Origin has long been plagued by controversy - most notably during the mid-90s when the Rupert Murdoch-controlled 'Super League' split Australian rugby league into two factions, each with its own rival Origin series; the Murdoch league created a three-team competition, including New Zealand. Not only did Origin survive the Super League fiasco, it has emerged stronger than ever. How this came about remains a mystery - league is a minority sport in Australia (played only in Queensland and NSW) and of no international appeal outside PNG, New Zealand and the north of England. Matches between state-based soccer, rugby union ('the game they play in heaven') and cricket teams are never likely to draw the fervour of rugby league, a working-class game where only the toughest survive. When asked to compare rugby union, the so-called gentleman's game, with the wrestling, eye gouging and spear tackling of rugby league, one said: 'It's hard to play a game in heaven, when you don't believe in heaven.'