Up until Game 3, this year’s Origin season hadn’t really brought the entertainment factor. For Blues supporters like myself, there was a sense that Queensland had finally reached critical mass. As much as we can blame the New South Wales mindset, or Laurie Daley’s selection choices, it’s become impossible to ignore the simple fact: the Maroons have most of the best players in the game. As it currently stands, roughly three-quarters of the Queensland side is stacked with Kangaroos players, which means that the Blues are pretty much taking on the Australian representative team whenever Origin comes around. Given how strict the NRL is about policing salary cap breaches and equitable access to players across every team – at least in theory – there’s something novel about a competition like Origin that introduces a bit more chance into the eligibility process. But when so many of the game’s best players come from Queensland, it all gets a bit boring, especially the hype: for all that the media seems to get more and more incredulous with each passing year, who would you really expect to win when the Maroons contain Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis, Darius Boyd, Corey Parker and – until recently – Justin Hodges and Billy Slater?
As a Blues fan, then, I have no problem with acknowledging that Queensland has the stronger side. What I am tired of is all the endless analysis as to why this is the case. Of course, analysis is part of the pleasure of Origin, but sometimes I think we can’t see the wood for the trees: while Mal Meninga and Kevin Walters may have had all kinds of selection and coaching strategies up their sleeve, the success of the Maroons does come down to the quality of their players, which just happen to represent the best cross-section of talent to be drawn from Queensland in the history of the series, and possibly in the history of Australian Rugby League itself. For that reason, I found Games 1 and 2 a bit boring this year. While it was certainly exciting to see New South Wales’ debutants shine, it was outweighed by the crushing sense of inevitability when it came to the Queensland side. While we certainly could have beaten them in both Games 1 and 2 – and especially in Game 1 – it somehow didn’t feel surprising or exciting when they won either. After so many years, a Maroons victory feels like a bit of a foregone conclusion, and it’s hard to believe that the series is going to get much of its excitement back until Thurston, Smith and Cronk eventually retire, so secure is their grasp of the Steeden across these two hundred and forty minutes of football held every year.
Nevertheless, Game 3 turned into a bit of an exception, partly because it was a dead rubber. While there’s nothing to beat the excitement of a final death clash for the last round of Origin, a dead rubber can also force the losing team to experiment with players and moves that they wouldn’t necessarily execute if there was more at stake – an especially important factor for a coach like Daley who tends toward conservatism and tradition. At the same time, the impotence of a dead rubber – the knowledge that you’ve lost before you even pick up the Steeden – creates a different kind of desperation. With 2016 feeling like a watershed year for the Maroons’ supremacy – the year we all finally acknowledged that Queensland is more or less unbeatable – there was a particularly intense underdog mentality on show at ANZ for Game 3. Not unlike some of the poorer teams in the NFL – Origin is, after all, our main glimpse of how a fully deregulated NRL might look – the Blues seemed to bristle with the indignity of being forced to go up time and again against the national team while being expected to somehow put in a series-winning performance.
Nowhere was that tension clearer than in Andrew Fifita’s already-infamous hit on Gavin Cooper. A good ten seconds after Cooper had planted the ball over the line and an Origin fracas had broken out, Fifita ran over and dove right into the middle of the fray to tackle Cooper to the ground as if the ball was still in contention. While there’s no doubt that Fifita can be a bit of a thug – at least when it comes to junior refs – that thug attitude started to make a bit more sense in retrospect, with the Blues enforcer both attributing it to to Cooper’s post-try celebration – bouncing the ball off Matt Moylan’s head – while claiming to Fox Sports that he wouldn’t do things any other way if he had the opportunity to play the game again. On the one hand, the connection to Moylan made sense: after all, Fifita and Moylan go back a long way, while Blues players and fans – myself included – all seem to have a bit of a soft spot for Moylan in general. Not only does Moylan seem like your quintessential model footy player – tactful, humble, quietly spoken – but he’s been put in a difficult position by the arrival of James Tedesco at fullback. While he may have been temporarily shifted to the halves, it’s possible that this will also be his last season at an Origin level. For me, there’s a peculiar pathos that attaches to players that have an aborted Origin career, whether because they start too early, like Jarod Mullen, or because they’re replaced by younger guns, like Trent Hodkinson, or because, as in the case of Moylan, they were really placeholders all along.
At one level, then, Fifita’s action made sense as part and parcel of a general protectiveness the Blues seem to feel towards their freshest debutant. At the same time, however, Fifita’s interview with Fox turned into a general tirade on Queensland attitude – a hysterical rant that seemed to encapsulate years of humiliation at the hands of the Maroons assault. While the Cane Toads have generally been good sports about their victorious streak, this year Josh McGuire’s infamous tweet – “losers have meetings, winners have parties” – seemed to summarise the attitude that such a dynastic team almost inevitably exudes despite all the manicured modesty of a leader like Cameron Smith. While McGuire came under a lot of fire for his tweet, and seems to be roundly disliked even by Queenslanders, I still found it pretty hard to take: this is, after all, a relatively replaceable Origin newbie who simply happens to be fortunate enough to find himself housed in the midst of the greatest Queensland team in history. In its arrogance and oblivion, McGuire’s comments seemed to fuel some of the more aggressive moments on the New South Wales side, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Fifita had it in mind when he laid hands on Cooper at the corner as well.
While Fifita’s biff with Cooper may have been the most dramatic moment of the night, a couple of calls against Queensland created the sense that the next big punchout was never far away. When Cooper Cronk was sent off at the end of the first half, the punishment didn’t seem to match the crime, so I can only assume that Gerald Sutton was sending a clear message to the Maroons that the string of penalties and growing grubbiness had to stop before things got out of hand. Greg Inglis’ shoulder charge against Josh Dugan was another matter – while it certainly brought back memories of Dugan’s more fragile days with the Raiders, it seems a matter of form now that the NRL has to be especially punitive on any shoulder contact that results in injury, even during the high-octane stakes of Origin. While that’s undoubtedly an important move in removing or at least managing the shoulder charge, it did seem to me from the video footage that Inglis had slammed into Dugan inadvertently, only putting his shoulder forward to brace himself and prevent anything more drastic happening. Still, part of the intensity of Origin is the way in which intention starts to become indiscernible: beyond a certain point, the game is so rough that probably hard for players themselves to know whether they meant to make a dirty move or not.
Certainly, that was the case with Inglis, who put in one of his most blistering Origin performances in years. While he can be a bit lacklustre in Souths games, there’s nothing like seeing G.I. fired up when he puts on the Maroons jersey. More than nearly any other Queensland player, he thrives on the amped-up, adrenaline high that comes with Origin, and which seems to transform the Maroons squad into a team of such conviction and momentum that the New South Wales players seem almost unbearably limp and fragile besides them. In particular, the Blues’ big men leave a lot to be desired – with the exception of Josh Jackson, who goes from strength to strength – since while Aaron Woods and James Tamou may have the bulk and girth needed to be bona fide battering rams, they just don’t seem to be able to inject that shot of adrenaline into their play that makes Queensland so formidable. Woodsy, in particular, doesn’t even really feel up to Origin – and I say this as a Wests Tigers supporters – since he barely makes metres after contact, always flopping like his physiotherapist told him to avoid heavy lifting. While Woods’ aborted high-five at the conclusion of the game was one of the great Origin moments, it was also just that little bit embarassing to a Blues fan as well, not only because it ended things on a bumbling, clownish note, but because his mad dash for the high-five didn’t really feel that different from one of his non-tackles: in both cases, players simply seemed to run right through him.
If anything, Josh Mansour managed to provide more grunt than Tamou and Woodsy combined – despite his much smaller stature – and his sterling defence on the wing just made it that little bit more heartbreaking when Darius Boyd – Maroons attitude embodied – managed to get the Steeden through in the last couple of minutes. Yet that just made it all the more exhilarating to see James Tedesco bring in the New South Wales victory a couple of minutes later, in one of the best get out of jail free cards ever handed to a Blues teammate in all the time I’ve watched the game. Apart from the pleasure of seeing Mansour save face, it felt appropriate that it was Teddy who managed to place his final touches on the game, since, along with Tyson Frizell he managed to provide a great deal of the Blues’ motor energy and forward momentum. It’s no secret that Tedesco is the most innovative, ingenious and improvisational fullback in the game, nor that Daley would probably have picked him if he had been available earlier in the year, but whether or not he would manage to showcase that football genius in an Origin context was another question entirely. Yet those of us who are Tigers supporters know that Teddy will often stamp his signature upon the game in the most unlikely manner and at the most unexpected time, so his dash down the field in the 78th minute felt as inevitable in retrospect as it was unexpected at the time.
In the end, it turned out to be the best try assist of the game, rather than the best try of the game. Nevertheless, it felt like Teddy’s try in spirit, not only because of that stunning spectacle of him finding free space, but also because it seemed to epitomise all the obstacles he has had to overcome to make it to an Origin level, especially the injuries that have always seemed to plague him at the most critical moments in his club and rep career. After the game, Gus Gould observed that we witnessed the birth of a great Blues fullback as much as another victory for Queensland, and in those last few minutes when Tedesco took command of the season it really felt as if you could see the next major evolution of the Blues lineup evolving before your eyes. For many fans, then, it must have been a bit anticlimactic to see Michael Jennings finally bring home the try, and the Blues seemed to acknowledge as much, clustering around their fullback before Jenko had even got up on the ground. Both in the aftermath of the try and in the post-game interviews in the sheds, Jennings seemed more restrained than usual, to the point where I found myself wondering whether his dreadful fumbling of Tyson Frizell’s potential second try last game has put him on the outer with the rest of the team. Certainly, his solitary chest-thump after Teddy put him over the line seemed light years away from the salute to the fans that turned him into the poster boy for the 2014 victory: back then, he was the focal point of the crowd, team and commentators; this time around, it felt more like he was going through the victory motions for himself than anything else.
Speaking of Frizell, there can be no doubt that the burly Dragons prop was the other young gun to really star for the Blues – if Daley doesn’t pick him along with Tedesco next year I may have to start supporting Queensland. Just as Teddy defined the close of the game so Frizell defined the opening, busting his way through a Maroons defensive that line that wouldn’t open again for the next forty minutes, despite a staggering succession of penalties that gifted the Blues wave after wave of attack upon Cane Toad territory. Of all the New South Wales players, Frizell most successfully harnessed and absorbed the adrenaline-amped high of the Queensland players – no small feat considering how quietly-spoken and politely mannered he is off the field – giving his combats with their big men a galvanising Maroon-on-Maroon intensity. Combining Jason Taumalolo’s effortless ability to make metres after contact with Josh Papallii’s determination to seek out danger, he seemed to signal a new era of conviction, momentum and forward strength for New South Wales, and left more storied veterans such as Tamou, Woods and even Klemmer in his shadow.
After such a decisive opening and closing act from the Blues, as well as an extraordinary kicking game for James Maloney, whose intelligence and insight with the ball fully warranted MOTM, it felt right that the team were really able to send Paul Gallen out in style, with the veteran New South Wales captain kicking his first and last Origin conversion right on the final siren. For those of us who are Gallen fans, his show pony antics are part of what makes him winning, and this final spectacle was pure Gal, as the team seemed to realise as they rallied around him after the Steeden made it through the posts. Sure, he can be grubby at times, and probably runs much longer with the ball than necessary, but he’s skippered the hardest knocks Rugby League team I’ve ever seen take the field, and for that he more than deserved the accolades of Wednesday night’s win, as well as the closing conversion. While Queensland may have won the series, and will probably go on to win every series until the current Maroons generation retires – I’m just expecting it now – those last couple of minutes, between Teddy’s run and Gallen’s kick, felt like they belonged to New South Wales alone. In retrospect, I think we’ll look back at them as the moment at which a critical changing of the guard took place, and as a key point in the evolution of the next generation of Blues players. That sense of hope, so fragile and yet so important to a New South Wales supporter, was responsible for some of the best and most entertaining moments in Origin 2016 – for the first time in a long time it feels as if a more robust and equal playing field might be around the corner. Here’s hoping it arrives soon.