ORIGIN: New South Wales Blues v. Queensland Maroons (ANZ Stadium, 24/6/18)
The second Origin clash of 2018 got under way with just as much intensity as the first fixture at the MCG, thanks in part to the return of Billy Slater as Queensland fullback. Removing Cooper Cronk, Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith has only clarified just how good Slater still is, and he made an impact immediately, almost effecting a linebreak and then funneling the ball up the side to Valentine Holmes, whose subsequent kick unluckily ricocheted off James Tedesco and then forced Cameron Munster to get it to ground a bit further back for a turnover to the Blues.
Despite that, Queesland were pretty dominant from the outset, with even New South Wales’ more assertive gestures not quite paying the dividends they were looking for. While Latrell Mitchell and Josh Ado-Carr might have dragged Will Chambers into touch, it was ruled a penalty as the tackle was complete. Similarly, while Turbo might have tactically knocked the ball on right on the line, it didn’t stop Dane Gagai crossing in the right corner off the very first tackle following the restart.
This didn’t turn out to be the first try of the evening, however, despite an on-field ruling of try, since the video footage showed that Ado-Carr had put in a terrific effort to force Gagai to hit touch at the very moment he planted the Steeden to ground. It was a stunning testament to the Fox’s speed and strength, and initially looked as if it might lead to a burst of momentum for New South Wales, especially once Ben Hunt got the first offside penalty of the night on the opening tackle of the subsequent set.
At the other end of the field, James Maloney kicked to Mitchell, who managed to catch the footy in the air despite it deflecting unexpectedly off a Queenslander’s head, but Chambers did a terrific job of getting him to the ground and forcing the changeover. A terrible kick from Munster seemed to signal the end of the next Maroons set, only for Gagai to compensate with a second boot to the in-goal area, where Tedesco collected it and very nearly made it his way back to the field of play, only to be confronted by a swarm of Queensland jerseys blocking him at every turn,
The Maroons made the most of the dropout, as a sequence of quick passes from Slater and Greg Inglis showed why they’re such storied veterans, as both players timed things perfectly to completely show up Tom Trbojevic and James’ Roberts’ comparative Origin inexperience. Too late, Turbo saw that Roberts wasn’t quite able to defend Inglis after having set his attention on Slater, and so shifted his own focus across from the corner to leave Holmes to collect the ball and run behind the posts.
It was a vulnerable moment for the Blues backline, and things got worse a couple of minutes later, after Gagai got his own back on Ado-Carr by shoving him into touch just as New South Wales were starting to develop some good speed up the side of the field. On the next Maroons set, Gagai himself crossed over, this time utterly outspeeding Ado-Carr and fending him off for good measure, as the Fox found himself caught between his fellow no. 5 and Chambers, unable to properly defend either as he tumbled over the sideline while Gagai scored the next try of the night.
Both Maroons wingers had now scored, and the stage had been set for a rivalry between Ado-Carr and Gagai. It was clear, too, that the Blues had to so something ballsy to get back in the game, meaning it was just the right moment for Maloney to take the kind of calculated risk that can make him such a visionary on the park. A few sets later, Maloney made as if to boot the footy to Mitchell, causing Gagai to stay right back, expecting Chambers to run in for the contest, only for the Penrith five-eighth to send out the most daring cut-out pass of the night, sailing the ball past three Queensland defenders to arrive at Ado-Carr to collect it on the outside edge.
Gagai wasn’t out of the play by any means, but was sufficiently taken aback for the Fox to skip and pivot around him, before swerving around Slater and Hunt and muscling his way through Chambers to slam the Steeden to the ground. It was a terrific riposte to Gagai’s previous try, especially once he and Mitchell dragged the big Rabbitohs winger into touch at the very moment Kalyn Ponga ran out to the field.
While Ponga may have been touted as the future of the Queensland franchise, his first big gesture here was an offside penalty that gave the Blues the chance to kick at goal. In one of the most significant decisions of the game, however, they chose to take a shot at the line, putting through a sequence of tackles that culminated with a grubber from Maloney that Cordner was unable to ground after being obstructed by Hunt. In a historic and courageous decision, the Bunker decided to award a penalty try, since there was nobody else between the Blues captain and the ball – the first of its kind in an Origin series, and the first in Origin full stop since Mal Meninga in 1981.
It was an even bigger result given that New South Wales had chosen to run the line, and the Blues headed into the sheds two points ahead, although Slater made his mark as quickly in the second half as he had in the first, cleaning up the footy at the end of a New South Wales set before getting around Nathan Cleary and sending it off to Holmes. In a stunning sequence of broken play, the Maroons continually seemed on the verge of breaking through the line, only for Felise Kaufusi to mistime a backhanded pass that saw the ball tumble over the sideline for another turnover.
The Blues now proceeded to effectively build a try on defense, as a massive combined tackle from Jack De Belin and Paul Vaughan forced an error from Hunt, gifting the hosts another set of six, and then another when Ponga stuck out his right leg and was called to have played at Maloney’s grubber. Throughout these two critical sets, the Queensland defence seemed impenetrable, as the Blues tried every angle and approach, only for a short ball from Tedesco to send Mitchell over with Chambers around his waist, landing on the footy before Gagai could get in to help.
With Maloney soaring through a beautiful sideline kick, the Blues were now eight points ahead, and had scored eighteen successive points after being down ten nil in the opening part of the game. They needed a clear gesture of consolidation, and Mitchell provided just that with a massive hit on Munster, which sent shock waves through the Queensland defence and was every bit as momentum-building as Inglis’ big shots in Origin 1, in yet another of the synergies between these two big players.
At the end of the set, the final Queensland kick ricocheted off Mitchell, who was called to have played at it much as Ponga had been before, but the ongoing impact of his hit-up got the Blues off the hook, with Slater sending a panicky forward pass as the young Roosters backliner ran towards him, unsure if he was coming in for another massive clash. The Maroons had the next big bout of possession, though, and while Ado-Carr might have jammed in Chambers during a crucial final tackle, the visitors were the next to score, thanks to a risky move from Mitchell, who tried to send the Steeden over to the Fox for a long-range try, only for some pressure from Jai Arrow to force him to cough it up and return possession to Queensland again.
It didn’t feel all that surprising, then, when Chambers stormed through Mitchell to crash over shortly after, although with Holmes missing his second conversion the Blues were still a try ahead. A stunning linebreak from Ponga – his first really decisive play of the night – didn’t quite get Queensland out of the red, but the result was almost as effective, since it ended up inducing a professional foul from Roberts on Gavin Cooper, sending the big Broncos centre to the sin bin with eleven on the clock.
As the final chapter of the clash wound down things got more and more intense, from a brutally dangerous tackle from Chambers to an injury that forced Corner to sub on for De Belin with six minutes to go. A penalty on Tyrone Peachey for tripping didn’t do the Blues any favours, but a kick from Chambers that went dead in goal gave them a little bit of breathing space with a seven tackle set at the 75th minute.
The Maroons got their last major attacking chance at the seventh-sixth minute, but with Tedeso catching the final kick on the full, and a penalty on Dylan Napa for tripping, the Blues got a fresh chance at the line as Roberts sped back out onto the field. And then, the unthinkable happened, and an error from Slater got New South Wales the scrum feed with thirty seconds left on the clock, capping off one of the most suspenseful back halves of Origin that I’ve ever witnessed, especially at ANZ.
While Queensland may have been the most experienced team on the park, that just made this feel like an even more significant moment for the next generation of New South Wales players, especially given that they’d been down to twelve men for the final ten minutes. With the series now won, they’ll be looking to make it three from three when they meet again at Suncorp, but it doesn’t really matter all that much, since the Blues put in what will surely come to be seen as an era-defining performance, and a pivotal turning-point over the next decade of the Origin series.
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