For the first time since 2010, the Queensland Maroons were without Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith or Johnathan Thurston in their lineup when they met at the MCG on Wednesday night. If the new Melbourne venue made the Storm’s Big Three feel more present in spirit, then its novelty as an Origin stadium also made this feel like a fresh start for both sides, since the New South Wales Blues were also sporting a revamped lineup after several years of experimenting in various forms.
For the first minutes of the match, Queensland dominated and even exhausted New South Wales, and looked to be the first to put down points, so serene was their command of the ground. Yet a linebreak from Josh Ado-Carr, combined with an error from Michael Morgan, gave the Blues a much-needed goal line dropout, at the end of which a short ball from Nathan Cleary almost set up Boyd Cordner to crash over, only for some great defence from Will Chambers to keep him from the first four points. Nevertheless, some more quick work from Ado-Carr did the job again on the next set, and a penalty from Dylan Napa gave the hosts the game’s first penalty goal.
The Blues were also the first to score a try, thanks to a pair of misses from Will Chambers. The first occurred on the back of a linebreak and pass from Felise Kaufusi, which the Melbourne backliner fumbled despite having considerable space on his right, where Dane Gagai was waiting to carry the footy over the line. New South Wales made the most of the shift in momentum, too, with Damien Cook putting in a terrific linebreak out of dummy half early in the next set, before sending the footy across to James Maloney, who fended off Ben Hunt and made his way up the park.
At first, Chambers tried to target Maloney, but Jimmy was too fast for him, choosing the perfect moment to send the Steeden inside to James Tedesco, who built upon the momentum of both Cook and Maloney to storm ahead and dance out of an aborted ankle tap from Chambers at the final moment. While Ado-Carr and James Roberts had been extolled as the speedsters of this new Blues outfit, it was just as rousing to see Cook, Maloney and especially Tedesco approaching maximum speed.
For a moment, it looked as if the Blues might continue the momentum after Valentine Holmes coughed up the football under the pressure of a jersey grab from Reagan Campbell-Gillard. A huge hit-up from Greg Inglis a few sets later reversed things, though, since while G.I. might have been called offside this was easily one of his biggest defensive efforts of the year; a monstrous hit-up that was determined to channel all the energy of Cronk, Slater, Smith and Thurston – the last dynastic decade of Queensland dominance – that had left him as its figurehead this game.
It was the kind of gesture needed from an Origin captain, especially a captain with the gravitas of Inglis, and it motivated the Maroons immediately, with Holmes making up for his dropped ball with an intercept right in front of Roberts during the subsequent Blues set. All of a sudden, a Queensland penalty had turned into their no. 2 sprinting his way down the left edge of the field, moving ahead so far that none of the New South Wales defence bothered to waste their breath chasing him down.
The fact that Roberts was the casualty of the run made this even more painful for Blues supporters, given that his speed had been touted as one of the advantages of the new-look New South Wales outfit. Seeing him relegated to the edges of the spotlight by Holmes’ momentous effort therefore made it feel as if the Maroons had the winning edge, even if they were two points behind, so it was lucky that New South Wales didn’t bleed any more points as the clock wound down to half time.
The Maroons reasserted their dominance pretty quickly after they came back from the sheds, however, putting down another try off the back of a clunky New South Wales pass. This time it was a forward ball from Maloney to Mitchell that shifted possession early in the tackle count. Even a brilliant bootlace tackle on Chambers from Maloney couldn’t make up for his mistake, as a brilliant kick from Hunt sat up in just the right spot for Gagai to ground it. To be fair, New South Wales weren’t that bad defensively – the kick from Hunt was just that good, as was Gagai’s deftness in collecting the football at the very moment at which Tedesco seemed set to get it.
Nevertheless, it was Gagai who gifted the Blues the next try, after losing the footy during a tackle from Angus Crichton on the restart. A minute late, a superb double-dummy from Tedesco forced Chambers to commit in the left corner, setting up the Roosters’ fullback to pop over a short ball to Latrell Mitchell for the fourth try of the evening. Any concerns about Mitchell’s Origin strength were put to rest with this astonishing display, in which he barged through Morgan, Hunt and Gagai from five metres out from the line to clock up a triumphant four points for New South Wales.
Beating these three players at close range would have been impressive enough, but the Maroons defence had been fueled by Gagai’s stuff-up, steeling themselves more thoroughly than they had since the immediate aftermath of Inglis’ hit-up in the first half. One tackle before, Roberts had almost been lifted above the horizontal, so intense was the defence, so Mitchell’s strength in getting across was remarkable, especially since his timing with Tedesco forced a defensive misread from Hunt too.
Yet with Maloney failing to add the extras, the score was set at an agonising 12-12. The Blues made that 18-12 a moment later, however, after a terrific linebreak from Tedesco, followed by an even more impressive take under the high ball from Tom Trbojevic, who simply waited for Holmes to collect the Steeden before leaping up to effect an aerial one-on-one strip, before curving around and eluding Cameron Munster to put down four more points. If you could play rugby league with two fullbacks on the field, then it would look something like this, as Teddy and Turbo’s synergy came close to rivalling the elegance of Holmes’ opening dash down the park.
The Blues supporters had their hearts in their mouth when Cook hit the deck shortly after, especially since Inglis took advantage of the team’s vulnerability with a big run down the left edge of the field and a deft pass to Holmes. A misjudged kick on the third tackle from Chambers, however, gave Ado-Carr the opportunity to clean up the Queensland assault, and by the time the Blues were halfway back up the field Cook was backup on his feet again. Still, the Maroons had built momentum, and appeared on the verge of consolidating it with a dropout a few sets later, only for Jake Trbojevic to regain the football againl after a botched offload from Munster to Inglis.
By this stage, it was starting to become clear that the Queensland blueprint wasn’t going quite as expected, and while a mammoth tackle from Inglis on Cleary might have momentarily raised the Maroons’ adrenalin, it couldn’t recapitulate the power of his first half hit-up, and in some ways felt like a sign of desperation as much as anything else. In any case, Cleary responded with a tackle on Morgan, and with Cook dragging Morgan into touch the Blues had really started to take control of the game.
No surprise that it was Tedesco who set the foundations for their next points, since this was easily Teddy’s best game of Origin – the game in which he has graduated form being a new addition to being one of the leaders of the New South Wales side, making you wonder where all this energy and brilliance has been lurking during his first half of the year with the Roosters. This time, he effected a linebreak, storming up the field and then shifting inside just as quickly, where he sent across an on-the-ground pass to Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who got it across to Maloney just as fast.
From there, Maloney took a risk with a looping harbour bridge pass to Ado-Carr, and while the Blues may have lost some points with this kind of wide option earlier in the game, this one paid dividends immediately, as Ado-Carr put the ball down in the corner for exactly the kind of grounding you’d want and expect from him in an Origin context. Once again, Chambers was the casualty, and his body language was pretty haggard as Inglis barked out the next orders to his team in the subsequent huddle.
A 40/20 kick from Hunt at the seventh-fourth minute was the critical moment for the Maroons, but a messy option from Morgan meant that the visitors were unable to make the most of this last major bout of field position. At the other end of the field, the Blues got six again after a contest under the high ball, and Mitchell crossed over once again, only for some sterling Queensland defence to just hold him up. It was too little too late, though, as a series of changeovers saw the Blues get another go at the line with two minutes left on the clock, allowing Ado-Carr to put down an almost-try of his own, only for Gagai to showcase some great clutch defence in turn.
With a minute and a half on the clock, the Maroons had one more shot at their line, but a handover thirty seconds out from the end gave the Blues the game, in a rousing debut for this new generation of New South Wales representatives. No doubt, Queensland were strong – the strongest team for long stretches – but that just made this victory even more galvanising to watch, and a great precursor to the next instalment of Origin, which will be taking place on New South Wales home turf.