The Blues have really got nobody but themselves to blame after a dispiriting loss to Queensland on Wednesday night for the Origin decider. Despite the fact that New South Wales arguably had the better – and younger – team on paper, the Maroons put in one of their most virtuosic displays of the last couple of years to come away with a decisive 22-6 win.
In part, that was a testament to the Queensland spine, which also happens to be the Melbourne spine, presumably one of the key reasons why Kevin Walters opted for Cameron Munster over Daly Cherry-Evans. Billy Slater, in particular, was astonishing – I have to confess I initially thought he might not make that much of a comeback this year, let alone win another Origin series. If the spine was terrific, however, it was an even more stirring night for the Maroons’ wingers, with Valentine Holmes bagging a hat trick and Dane Gagai going down as the first flyer in Origin history to be named Man of the Series.
From the outset, Queensland were dominant, with Holmes putting down the first points of the night fifteen minutes in. It came off the back of some incredible second phase play from Slater, who managed to funnel the ball across to Munster, who sent it on to Michael Morgan in turn. Despite playing out of position, Morgan put in the best pass of the night so far, spinning around in the tackle and eluding both Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson to offload to Holmes, who planted the ball right in the corner despite having three Blues on his back.
At first, it looked as if this might be as contentious as Holmes’ opener for Game Two, but bunker footage showed that the Cronulla winger had managed to ground the Steeden at the very second – the very millisecond – that it had started to slip from his grasp. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a fine line between losing and grounding the ball, and it was quite a sublime spectacle to witness the last lingering threshold of possession recede from Holmes’ fingers as he skidded over.
Less than fifteen minutes later Holmes crashed over again, this time thanks to a pair of damaging runs from Cameron Smith and Josh Papalii, followed by an extraordinary kick from Cooper Cronk that found Holmes right on the chest as he reached the try line. More like a pass than a kick, the ball moved low and flat across the field, barely moving a metre or two forward – or a metre or two above the players – but managing to skim across the surface of every Blues defender in the process, utterly defying their preconceptions of what a fifth-tackle option might entail.
If Holmes’ second try was all about Cronk, then his third was all about Holmes, and one of the most prodigious four-pointers I have ever seen. While it may have drawn on some terrific play from Munster, it centred on Holmes leaping up to the ball in the left corner, only to fumble it in the process. Nevertheless, he somehow, miraculously, managed to avoid knocking the Steeden on even as James Tedesco and Blake Ferguson were curving around to pick it up and, for a brief moment, the ball was suspended in space as all three players converged upon it. In yet another incredible move, Holmes managed to retrieve possession – regain isn’t a strong enough word – at the very moment that the tackle coalesced around him, crawling his way beneath both Teddy and Fergo to slam an Origin hat trick to ground.
Beyond that point, the Maroons would only score one try, but it was as emphatic, in its own way, as Holmes’ twelve points, as Coen Hess took advantage of a deft offload from Munster to stroll over, looking around to try and figure out where the Blues defence was at. It was the utter nadir for New South Wales, and more like watching a team defending from the bottom of the ladder than at an Origin level. The players seemed to know it, too, with James Maloney’s gutted speech to Brad Fittler in the post-match minutes giving voice to all the dejected faces and defeated body language that crept over the Blues in the build up to the final siren.
That’s not to say that New South Wales didn’t do anything right. If anything, their potential was what made the loss so frustrating. While they might only have scored a single try, it was a testament to what they could achieve as a team if they were sufficiently focused, with Josh Dugan going over ten minutes after half time off the back of a deft kick from James Maloney. In a nice touch, the St. George fullback outdid Holmes under the high ball to curve around and plant it under the posts, in what initially looked like it might be a genuine resurgence of momentum and a redemptive second act for the Blues.
It didn’t help, either, that the game seemed replete with moments in which New South Wales were let off the hook – moments when Queensland’s momentum was sufficiently dented that the Blues should have been able to wrest control of the narrative. The first of these came off the restart following Holmes’ first try, as a mad dash from Slater led to Cronk slamming up through the ruck and tacking the ball to earth in what initially looked like a definite four-pointer.
Bunker footage revealed, however, just how crucial Brett Morris’ trysaving tackle had been – or at least the prospect of Morris’ tackle, which forced Cronk to go low and dig into the ground, coughing up the ball in the process, even if you wouldn’t have known it from seeing the movement play out in regular time. Given the way it had both built upon Holmes’ opening points and the way in which it had affirmed Cronk and Smith’s rapport from the outset, it was a try that would have broken the game wide open if Morris hadn’t managed to intervene.
Again, several minutes out from half time, the ball appeared to have been played at by Queensland, but instead turned out to have simply bounced off Matt Gillett’s head, leading to a moment of freefall in which the Maroons found themselves with possession before New South Wales had reformed their defensive line – or even knew that they needed to reform their defensive line. Taking advantage of the momentary chaos, Tim Glasby scooped up the Steeden and scooted towards the line, with only an inspired chase from Maloney managing to ground him a metre out.
With a forward pass from Smith a couple of tackles later bringing Queensland’s field position to an abrupt halt and precluding what would have been another try for Holmes, the Blues were let off the hook, in what should have been a momentum shifter, especially given how emphatically a try from Glasby at this point would have vindicated Kevin Walters’ selection strategy and game plan. Yet New South Wales were unable to make good on their luck, heading back to the sheds tryless even as Queensland grew more determined to take their luck into their own hands.
Three minutes into the second half, the Blues once again had the chance to turn things around, after Slater got the ball across to Will Chambers, who was bunched right up against Dane Gagai out on the right wing. There was no doubt that one of them would have scored if Chambers hadn’t fumbled, with Tyson Frizell running in to scoop it up like his life depended on it.
As fate would have it, this provided New South Wales with the surge needed for them to set up Dugan’s try, but in some ways it was already too little too late. If the Blues hadn’t been able to capitalise upon Queensland’s few setbacks earlier in the game, even the comparative strength of their forwards was unable to help them now. With the seconds ticking down, it became clear that the visitors needed a moment of individual brilliance, a flamboyant display of leadership from one of their marquee players, akin to Tedesco’s terrific pair of trysaving tackles towards the end of the first game.
Unfortunately, they just seemed more debilitated by a crisis of confidence that saw Laurie Daley coming down to stand on the sidelines, fire in his eyes as he willed the team on to what might have been their last chance to solidly decimate the Origin dynasty of the last decade (and even then Jonathan Thurston and Greg Inglis were off the field). As a New South Wales fan, it’s hard to fully articulate the dismay I felt when the final siren blew – or across the last ten minutes really – as, once again, we were beaten by a superior level of structure and organisation, if not necessarily a superior side.
The big question, then, is where to from here? Obviously the Queensland dynasty is on its way out, but players like Holmes, Hunt, Napa and Milford make it clear that another dynasty may well be around the corner. For years, we’ve been saying that New South Wales need to rethink their game plan and attitude, but that seems more urgent and radical than ever now that we’re on the cusp of what may well be another decade of drought. Suffice to say that Daley and Cordner – or whoever happens to be captain next – need to do everything in their power to ensure that the Blues recapture their blistering form in Game 1 much more consistently in 2018.