The first match of the post-GF Origin season, and the first modern Origin match in daylight hours, came down to three tries apiece, with only a pair of missed conversions from Nathan Cleary making the difference. Despite ostensibly recovering from his injury, James Tedesco had a pretty quiet night, allowing the Queensland young guns to flex their muscles in the backline and come away with a four point win.
Damien Cook lost the ball off the kickoff, giving the Maroons an early advantage when Josh Papalii played it from the twenty, but the Blues got to their first set safely when Xavier Coates knocked Daly Cherry-Evans’ first bomb over the sideline a minute later. NSW recovered with the first penalty of the game from a Jake Friend offside, and shifted right on the third play, but Josh Ado-Carr couldn’t find quite enough space to ground the ball with Ryan Papenhuyzen and Phillip Sami barging in on him.
This was a great start from the Queensland backline, all debutants except Dane Gagai, who built on this momentum on the Maroons’ own right edge a set later, when he popped out a deft flick pass for Coates to break through the line, grubber off the left boot, and force Cook to take the ball dead in goal. Yet the first dropout of the night came to nothing when Papalii shot out a forward pass to Kurt Capewell early in the tackle count.
Once again NSW got an augmented set off Friend, this time with a ruck error that gifted them the first restart of the night, but Gagai continued to shine, executing a one-on-one strip on Tedesco that segued into the best bout of field position for Queensland so far – a restart off a Cleary ruck error, and then a pair of successive penalties for Daniel Saifiti for being offside within the ten.
The Maroons chose to take the two, and while DCE missed the shot here, his boot would end up making the difference by the time the final siren rang out, quelling early fears about Queensland not having a regular season kicker in their arsenal. The game now paused for a considerable period as Kaufusi went to ground, and resumed twice as quickly, with DCE getting to the kick as soon as possible, and the Maroons settling into one of their more sustained periods of field position and possession.
It all started with Capewell charging down a Luke Keary kick with no possibility of six again. The Maroons followed with one of their best close-range sets, featuring a great offload from Christian Welch back to Friend, before they got the ball back again. Only when Tino Faasuamaleaui knocked on DCE’s bomb was Clint Gutherson able to make some headway, helping Ado-Carr to bring it back within the NSW thirty by play two.
Not only had the Blues survived the biggest attacking sequence so far, but they accelerated with each fresh carry here, until Teddy arrived at the ten. This time the ricochet worked to their advantage, as Cook’s grubber careened off the defence, and Cook himself regathered it, dancing over a pair of low efforts from Welch and Kaufusi, then twisting through a last-ditch tackle from DCE to slam down the first four points of the night.
Cleary slotted through his first and only conversion, putting the Blues six ahead despite Queensland’s domination in possession and field position. They didn’t get to the end of the restart, though, as a second error from Teddy produced an early handover to Cameron Munster, who took the second carry as well. DCE aimed for an early left shift, but his pass was intercepted by Ado-Carr, while Boyd Cordner was taken off the field following a head knock with Kaufusi in backplay.
Saifiti got a good offload out the back to Cook on play two, and Cleary’s kick forced Kaufusi to work it back from the ten, before a Friend error on play two got the Blues their next chance. This time Ado-Carr found space on play three, ending a silky right sweep by receiving the footy from Angus Crichton and bumping off Papenhuyzen with a second-gear right fend. Credit to Cleary in particular for running deep into the line to draw in Faasuamaleaui, even if he didn’t get the conversion through the uprights.
Both teams went set for set over the next couple of minutes, building off a series of interchanges, until a Gagai error ushered in Queensland’s longest stretch of defence – a Sami error, a restart off a Kaufusi ruck error, and finally the first dropout for the Blues. Yet Gagai bookended it with the biggest one-man effort of the night so far – a huge trysaver that prevented Daniel Tupou taking a flick pass from Jack Wighton into the left corner.
The Blues retained their ten-point lead and got Cordner back eight minutes out from the end – a pretty unexpected outcome given his history with concussions. Yet Cleary had his worst moment of the year two minutes back from the break, receiving the footy from Cook and shaping to bomb, but instead dropping it cold. He got to his next kick fine, but the Maroons seemed galvanised by his error, gradually consolidating over the longest set-for-set sequence all night.
Warning signs started to emerge about six minutes in, with Friend popping out a good offload to Ben Hunt, and Ado-Carr fumbling the next high ball, forcing Wighton to clean it up right in the corner. Capewell followed with a huge tackle on the Fox, forcing Cleary to kick fifteen minutes out from the NSW line, and so the Maroons looked set to score at the end of their next carry, until Teddy collected a pass meant for Kaufusi – a sobering reminder of how good he normally is in the Blues jersey.
Cordner was determined not to let his men get trapped in the twenty again, but even so Keary had to kick from their own end, while an offload from Munster early in the next set broke open space for Capewell on the left edge. The big second-rower fended off Crichton and opted for an eccentric kick off the right boot at speed that AJ Brimson caught on the bounce for his first Origin try, somersaulting over the touch line as DCE sized up his first conversion of the night.
Munster booted through his biggest bomb on the restart, and the Blues were immediately back in the same sticky spot, trying in vain to break through a wall of Maroons jerseys, or at least execute some second-phase play, with Junior Paulo now following Cordner in an effort to secure Cleary a kick outside the NSW end. He couldn’t make it, and while Cleary’s next bomb did make it to the Queensland twenty, Hunt followed Munster with a mid-set offload that was effectively a linebreak assist.
This time space opened up on the right edge, where DCE got the footy out to Gagai to fend off Keary, break through the line, confound Teddy with the dummy, and send Coates over on the wing for his first NRL try. It was exactly the fusion of veteran and young gun talent the Maroons had been hoping for, since Gagai was the only backliner not on debut, and at only fifteen NRL matches under his belt Coates was the greenest Queenslander since Matt Scott in 2006.
With DCE adding the extras the Maroons took the lead for the first time, and initially looked certain to score on the restart, accelerating into their most restless and searching set in about ten minutes, forcing the Blues to really scramble to keep up with them. Somehow Ado-Carr contained Munster’s kick with a sea of Maroons jerseys closing in on him, but you could tell he was rattled as he gazed on at Gutho copping even more Queensland heat on the second play.
The game now settled into a mini-lull, with both teams opting for a few interchanges and then going set for set, but it didn’t take long for the Maroons to score again – this time off a botched offload from Tupou to Cody Walker in the middle of the park. Cleary lunged at the footy, but Munster got there first, toeing it forward with his right boot and then scooping it up and storming for the line with only Cook in pursuit.
Munster realised he couldn’t outpace the NSW hooker, so he shifted to the right and fended him off at the last minute, rolling over the Steeden before he finally, triumphantly got it down. For a moment, DCE’s sideline kick looked like it might go too wide, but that only made it more beautiful where it curled around the left post at the last second, bringing his men to an eight point lead with a little under fifteen minutes left on the clock.
Still, the Blues came close to winning it, getting their next big chance when DCE dummied and shifted the footy across to Jaydn Su’A, only for the South Sydney second-rower to mistime the next pass for Gagai. Motivated by this error, Ado-Carr broke through the line on the next set, kicking for himself and then clamouring for a Captain’s Challenge to contest his last-minute knock-on – only for the Bunker footage to clearly show that the mistake had been all his, without any involvement from Sami in defence.
Nevertheless, Ado-Carr got his linebreak during the next NSW possession. He was tackled by Munster after collecting the Steeden from Gutho on the third, but got another chance when the Blues got the last dropout of the night, off a crossfield Keary kick that the visitors were forced to take dead in goal, gifting NSW their first chance since the break to start a set of six down the Maroons’ end of the park.
A few plays later, Gutho sent the Fox through Sami in the right corner, but the Blues remained a full try behind when Cleary missed his second conversion. Queensland stayed strong over the last five minutes – a testament to Wayne Bennett’s acumen as halftime coach – while NSW will be digging deep to rehabilitate the Keary-Cleary combination, which was a bit of a failed experiment tonight, but might just get them through the next two weeks with a few tweaks and changes.