ORIGIN: Queensland Maroons v. New South Wales Blues (Suncorp Stadium, 31/5/17)
The Blues have played their best game of football in ten years at Suncorp Stadium tonight, delivering their most decisive victory – perhaps their only really decisive victory – since the current Queensland dynasty came of age. While commentators might bemoan the absence of Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis, you can’t chalk a 28-4 scoreline down to a deplete side, especially since the Blues lost one of their key playmakers and Origin veterans in Mitchell Pearce ten minutes into the second half.
Among other things, that made for one of the most exciting games of Origin in years, since while it might be gratifying for Maroons fans to see the Queensland team hammering out victory after victory, the matchup loses a bit of its tension when you have virtually all the Kangaroos on one side. This time around, there was just enough of a reshuffle on both sides to make it feel like a new generation was on the way, leading to the tightest and most professional first half of Origin football that I have ever seen.
After all, when all the dramas and biffs are filed away on YouTube, this is what Origin should really be about – football played at the highest level of skill and intensity. By the time the first scrum was formed at the twenty-minute mark, it felt as if both teams had played an entire match of football. By the time half an hour had passed, each team had only conceded a single penalty, notched up virtually the same number of tackles, and each completed 14 tackles. For the rest of the first half – and well into the second – each team maintained an equal possession rate, running from one end of the field to another until the exhaustion was palpable on every player’s face.
Of course, that just made it all the more exciting to see which side would crack first. Six minutes into the game, James Maloney had grounded the first Blues try after Nathan Peats passed to Mitchell Pearce in the middle of the field, and Pearce sent it back to the middle with an inside pass to Fifita, who sent it on to Maloney in turn. Combining great speed with dexterous footwork, Jimmy managed to dodge through the defence and outrun Cooper Cronk and Will Chambers right on the line before adding the extras a couple of minutes later.
Half an hour later, Corey Oates brought home the first and only four-pointer for the Maroons, off the back of a brilliantly placed crossfield kick from Cronk. His skill in grounding the ball was even more impressive in that the Blues had been targeting his corner all night, while the try was even more frustrating for the visitors in that Tedesco had lost the ball on the previous set, which had arguably been one of the very best for New South Wales thus far. Still, the spectacle of seeing Smith unable to convert suggested a chink in the Queensland armour – a reminder of how integral JT is to their vision and culture.
From there, both teams dug in again, although it felt as if something had to give – and it did, with Pearce scoring the second try for the Blues right on the stroke of halftime. It wouldn’t have happened, however, without a damaging run up the middle of the ruck from Andrew Fifita – who almost looked to reach the goal line himself – and a follow-on run from Tedesco, who passed it over to Pearce in turn. From there, Pearce made the critical decision to run the ball instead of grubbering it forward or opting for a short chip, and it paid off, with Maloney once again converting as the Maroons headed back to the sheds.
If this wasn’t quite a turning-point – not yet – it was nevertheless proof that it was possible to wrest a turning-point from two such equally placed teams, not least because of the way in which Pearce has sometimes been held up as a symbol for the inconsistency of the Blues as a whole. Setting his stamp on the first half, then, felt like a renewed statement of purpose and conviction from the entire New South Wales outfit, and they returned for the second stanza more fired up and focused than I’ve seen them in years.
Ten minutes in, however, things seemed to reach a different kind of turning point, with the Blues landing the first goal-line dropout of the night only for Pearce to go down following a sharp tackle from Chambers. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen teams making the most of injured players – Hayne, Tedesco, Mitchell – and it felt as if this might be what the Maroons needed to win it, especially because Pearce had proved so critical to the Blues’ push before half time. It didn’t help, either, that Ferguson and Morris had been taken off briefly in the first half as well, with shoulder and knee issues respectively.
Instead, however, the Blues chose this exact moment to break the deadlock wide open, with Tedesco, Fifita and Hayne – all so critical, in their different ways, to the New Souths Wales spirit – bringing in a rapid trilogy of tries that deserves to go down in the Origin annals. At the fifty-first minute, Teddy brought home the third four-pointer off a barraging run from Jack Bird and a quick play-the-ball from Nathan Peats, who was outstanding throughout the entire game in his vision from dummy half, facilitating the halves with so much aplomb that he put any debates about Robbie Farah’s comparative merits to rest almost immediately.
From there, Tedesco channeled his inner prop, taking on the defensive line with a rapid run and quick sidestep before twisting nearly a fully three hundred and sixty degrees to surge through four Queensland defenders and plant the Steeden right on the line. Culminating the first goal line dropout of the night and occurring moments after Pearce had been taken off the field, it was a terrific sign of conviction for the Blues, and galvanised the team more than any other four-pointer over the course of the match.
It was only four minutes before Fifita added his name to the board, after Hayne forced Justin O’Neill to cough up the ball on the first tackle, right on the Queensland line. In a total consummation of the enterprising, no-holds-barred spirit he’d demonstrated across the entire game, Fifita burned forward to land a four-pointer that felt almost as momentous as his final try against the Storm during last year’s Grand Final. In combination with Teddy’s try, it decisively reinstated the momentum needed to make up for Pearce’s absence, not least because Anthony Milford had also been taken off for the night shortly before.
Given Hayne’s dexterity in setting up Fifita’s mad dash, it felt only right that he put down the fifth and final New South Wales try of the night, off a good decision from Maloney to run the ball instead of grubbering on the final tackle. It’d be hard to overstate the emotion of seeing Hayne score in this way at this particular point in the game, and it felt as if he was coming full circle with his previous Blues performances, doing a full Hayne Plane display for the first time since returning to the NRL this year.
While those might have been the last points scored for the night, the Blues were just as impressive in keeping Queensland down. In the past, New South Wales have had a tendency to lose momentum at the end of the match, but here they played as decisively at the eightieth minute as they did at the first, with several of their defensive manoeuvres equalling or even outdoing their actual pointscoring.
Sixty-four minutes in, during their single best defensive set of the game, Tedesco managed to stop a certain try with a brutal hit on Matt Gillett before helping to drag Aiden Guerra into touch a couple of tackle later. Five minutes later, Josh Dugan forced Aiden Guerra to cough up the ball while grounding what would also have been a certain try. And five minutes out from the end Boyd Cordner crystallised his vision as New South Wales captain by refusing to allow Darius Boyd to even put down a consolation try for his team.
It was during these defensive moments that it really felt as it the Maroons script was failing, as they tried, time and again, to execute their regular magic, only for the Blues to thwart them – or force an error – with the same gusto and consistency. In some ways, that wasn’t so surprising, since from the very outset this felt like the first game in years in which both sides have been equally matched, to the point where all that was required was a sudden swing in momentum for one team to really take control of the game and decimate the opposition.
And, whatever your affiliation, you’d have to concede that it was exhilarating to see New South Wales playing in this way, partly because it took junior Origin players from both sides – Tedesco, Bird, Peats, Graham, Milford, Napa – to a new level, but also because Origin is just plain better when we have evenly matched sides. For the first time in a long time it felt as if the cream of the competition were playing each other, rather than an unofficial Kangaroos squad fronting up against a secondary side – and isn’t that so much more fun to watch?
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