The third Origin match in three weeks was also the 22nd decider, hosted at Suncorp by the Maroons, who broke the Blues’ three-game record just before it could settle into a streak. Corey Allan, Harry Grant, and cousins Edrick and Brenko Lee were all making their debut in the Queensland side, but the Blues lineup remained unchanged – at least until James Tedesco left the park with a serious concussion at the 19th minute, after scoring NSW’s first try in the 8th, forcing Clint Gutherson to take on the custodian role.
This was probably the key ingredient in one of the biggest decider upsets in recent years, since the Blues were primed to take away the series with Nathan Cleary and Cody Walker bringing their experience to the halves, along with Daniel Saifiti’s stellar performance in the front row over the first two fixtures. Brad Fittler was hoping to follow Phil Gould with three straight wins as New South Wales captain, but instead Wayne Bennett got his fifth victory as coach, as DCE lifted the shield high at the end.
Both teams rolled it up and down the park for the first couple of sets, as Queensland put the start of Origin 2 behind them, getting the first penalty of the night when Daly Cherry-Evans caught Walker offside two minutes in. Tino Faasuamaleaui took a big run up the middle to lay the foundation, and Queensland now settled into their first tryscoring sequence, rotating through a couple more big men before Val Holmes scored off a rapid shift to the left that was way too easy for a top-tier Blues defence.
Cam Munster ran into the line, and then popped it across for a Corey Allan catch-and-pass that questioned the short-range speed of Josh Ado-Carr, leaving space for Holmes to tuck it under his arm, and avoid Angus Crichton’s touch until he was soaring through the air – intent enough on his trajectory by now to get the footy down before he tumbled over the sideline. Holmes’ conversion was almost as good – a sharp strike from the sideline that hooked around and through the posts at the very last minute.
This was a big opening statement from the Maroons, who got an extra burst of field position on the restart off some crowding from Tyson Frizell, and got stuck in for the first really sustained attack, notching up five play-the-balls in New South Wales’ twenty – the Blues didn’t even have one yet – and turning in one front row charge after another. It was a big let-off, then, when Jake Friend took the final kick, grubbering it directly into Payne Haas, who caught it on the full to get the Blues rolling once more.
New South Wales had to cancel out the impact of the earliest try in this Origin series, and they got going with the first restart, off a ruck error from Josh Papalii. Frizell glimpsed a break, but was tackled to ground by Munster, and Cleary chipped to the left edge, where Allan appeared to have secured it on the full in goal, only to drop it right on the line. In one of the best Origin tries in years, DCE tried to ground it, but only got his hands around it, leaving the footy open for Tedesco to stealth in and score.
This was beautiful to watch in slow motion – a titanic battle of the Captains as Teddy reached his right hand into DCE’s field of vision and planted the footy down, levelling the score once Cleary showed Holmes how to boot it straight through the posts from the sideline. Tedesco had often seemed to be in second gear during the later part of his Roosters season, and even during some of Origin 1, so seeing him come up with such a spectacular stealth play was a critical galvanising point for his men here.
To make matters worse, Munster’s kickoff went out on the full, soaring seventy metres over the dead ball line to gift New South Wales an augmented restart once Cleary had slotted it over the thirty. Crichton consolidated with a massive hit-up on the first carry, and Haas was just as staunch on the second, before Clint Gutherson took on Dane Gagai as the Blues swept right. Cleary chipped again on the last, but Friend now swapped positions with Haas, and got his own chance to clean up the ball with style.
Likewise, Ado-Carr got some closure after failing to clean up Allan during the opening try by storming across field to contain a DCE 40/20 attempt. Iosioa Soliola and Holmes responded with the Maroons’ first big burst up the middle in some time, starting a forward momentum that got them six more tackles after Cleary was pinged for a ruck error. They got six again – again – right on the line, thanks to some deft work by Papalii, but the Blues got a moment to gather their breath when Allan almost coughed it up.
When the Maroons resumed, they had a bit less direction, with Munster turning a full 360 on the left side of the park, and Jack Wighton scrambling to bring a DCE chip back into the field of play on the other wing. You could tell that Queensland weren’t ready to end this phase of attack, and it worked against them, since an immediate offside penalty for Christian Welch got the Blues back up the other end of the stadium, where Walker took over kicking duties for an awkward bounce that Allan couldn’t contain.
Luckily for the Maroons, Brenko Lee was there to finally take control of it, but the impact of Queensland’s sustained period on the New South Wales line had diluted, as both teams went set for set for the next couple of minutes. This was the first big arm wrestle, with both states sitting on six apiece, looking for the next error, penalty or opportunity that would break the game open. For a moment it looked like Tedesco had provided it, coughing up the footy under big pressure from Papalii late in the count.
As it turned out, though, this was bad enough for Teddy to be taken off the park – and a bad show for Jai Arrow, who came in to put additional pressure on the New South Wales fullback even though it was clear that he wouldn’t be getting to his feet again. In this particular instance, the pause worked against Queensland, who might well have scored if big Tino had been able to continue his barnstorming run after Teddy hit the deck, but losing the game’s best fullback was clearly catastrophic for the Blues here.
Isaah Yeo now came off the bench, and Clint Gutherson slipped into the custodian role, as the Maroons dug deep for their hardest defence next time the Blues had ball in hand, aware that they now had a massive advantage in terms of manpower in the backline. As Papalii made ten post-contact metres on play two of the next set, and DCE drifted across the face of the ruck, you could feel the Maroons consolidating, even if Gutho came up with his first great read at no. 1 to contain Munster’s last tackle kick.
In particular, DCE seemed steeled by being the only captain left on the park, especially since Tedesco had literally stolen a try out of his hands, relaxing into his most fluid and flexible footwork of the game so far, dodging and weaving his way around the New South Wales defensive line in search of opportunities. There was no doubt that the Maroons now had the upper hand, so it was a big reprieve for the Blues – possibly a turning-point – when Allan made his second error with a drop in the play-the-ball.
This levelled the playing field for a bit, despite Harry Grant trotting onto the park for his Origin debut, as New South Wales managed to contain and match the Queensland drive for a couple of minutes again. Right on the half hour mark, Cleary got them back on the front foot again with a sublime 40/20 kick, under pressure, on the third tackle – just the leadership he needed to be showing from the spine in Tedesco’s absence.
Yet this just gave the Maroons a platform for their best defensive stint of the entire game – a series of superb short-range, one-man trysavers over two sets, after Collins conceded six again with a ruck error late in the tackle count. Felise Kaufusi and Papalii got them rolling with a couple of huge hits, and then Damien Cook held up Gutherson right on the line. Even Collins got some joy in the end, coming in to force an error from Walker just after the New South Wales half had collected a deft offload from Paulo.
The Maroons now translated this defensive acumen straight into attack, building on an error from the other New South Wales half, as Cleary was pinged for holding down a tackle later. The Blues were fully aware that the temperature had shifted again, the first fracas of the match ensued, and Cleary made another error, but for a moment it looked like New South Wales had regathered, as Josh Ado-Carr managed to bump Holmes into touch on the left wing to make up for letting Allan pass to him earlier on.
In other words, the Blues had corrected, but the Maroons showed they could correct even more efficiently two sets later, when they came up with one of the most spectacular Origin tries of the last decade – a testament to Munster’s brilliance in broken play. It started with Munster collecting a DCE pass and grubbering himself up the left edge, surging ahead to capitalise on an unusual angle, and then kicking again at an even odder angle, so that it looked as if he’d bounced it, NBA-style, at the line.
DCE missed it, Tupou coughed it up, and Arrow didn’t quite manage to hit the chalk after he contained it, but Munster was still in a state of flow, booting the ball to the other side of the field where Brenko Lee reached out a hand and tapped it backward, leaving space for cousin Edrick to scoop it up and slam over untouched. This was pure improvisation, eyes-up footy at its best, putting Queensland six ahead after Holmes showed Cleary that he could boot it through straight and true from the sideline too.
The Blues had a good set after the break, but the Maroons were even better, as Grant broke through the line for his first great Origin play, and the Bunker got its toughest Origin call of the year a moment later when he kicked at speed. Holmes arrived at the footy first, and booted it a second time, then clamoured for a professional foul, but without any joy, since the replay showed Cleary had clearly been playing at the Steeden and had only made incidental contact to throw Holmes off his tryscoring trajectory.
This was a big letdown for the Maroons, who were seething next time they had ball in hand, forcing an enormous trysaver from Gutho on Allan, before Munster surged into try and replicate his eyes-up play at the end of the second stanza. For a moment, it seemed like Queensland would compress and perfect their last set, in the most compressed set so far, since Grant compressed his previous run, burning his way across every possible chink in the New South Wales defence before shifting it over to Allan.
Agonisingly, this play was so compressed that the sheer speed of it ended up working against Queensland as well. DCE received the footy from Allan and lobbed it over three players for Gagai to reach a hand out of the tackle to effectively roll it along the ground to Holmes, who somehow, at this critical juncture, fumbled it with open space all the way to the try line. Grant got one more shot with a strip early in the next Blues set, but his superb trio of playmaking options came to a rude end now with a Gagai knock-on.
This was the fastest five minutes of the night, so the Maroons inevitably decelerated once it came to nothing, and didn’t get their next big chance until a Friend grubber trapped Ado-Carr behind the line for a dropout at the 52nd minute. Queensland started to accelerate again here, thanks to a restart late in the tackle count, a Tupou error that the Blues could easily have challenged, and a series of clashes between Tino and Haas that got both sides back into the high-octane atmosphere of Game 2’s second stanza.
Despite the Queensland surge (or because of it) this initially looked like a master class of Blues defence, but it still ended with two points for the Maroons, when Munster’s final kick ricocheted off Capewell to Frizell, who was in an offside position but still had to make a play at it. Holmes added the penalty goal, bringing his men to a 14-6 lead – a pretty significant advantage in such a low-scoring game, for a less experienced side.
Ado-Carr contained Munster’s next bomb in the face of a massive kick chase, but the Blues followed with their worst piece of judgement all night – a left-side shift early in the tackle count that ended with a forward pass from Wighton. With twenty minutes on the clock, this was the last major turning-point of the match, and the Maroons capitalised immediately, thanks to Grant, who was having his chest strapped when Wighton made the error, but put down the winning try when he returned to the field.
Collins got the set rolling with one of his biggest runs of the night, Tino bumped into Haas again right on the line, and Welch managed an offload on the fourth to Grant. The rest was Origin history, as the Melbourne hooker bumped through Saifiti, the hardest working frontrower of the entire season, to reach out his right hand and slam the Steeden down over the line as Walker tumbled on top of him. Grant’s trio of big plays after the break had promised something special, and his debut try lived up to it.
Holmes was always going to add the extras from close-range, so the Blues needed to come up with a change in rhythm fast, since they were now fourteen behind, with fourteen left on the clock. They got their chance on the kickoff, when Kaufusi ran Tupou off the high ball, then again with a dangerous tackle from Friend a play later. They scored three tackles after that, thanks in large part to Wighton, who made up for his error by running a great line to bring in Brenko Lee and clear up space on the left edge.
All it took, then, was a well-timed dance into the defensive line from Gutho, who popped it across for Tupou, who cross over, blood streaming from his nose, to score as close to the posts as possible, tsetting up Cleary for the last try conversion for either team all night. Cleary booted through two again four minutes later, when Grant was pinged for holding down, meaning that the Blues had about eight minutes to level the score, as they searched in vain for the converted try that could save their series.
It was amazing they didn’t score, since this last part of the game was pretty much all theirs, from Yeo’s linebreak in the aftermath of Cleary’s penalty kick, to the professional foul that landed Allan in the sin bin with four minutes to go, to the DCE dropout, Friend error and successful Captain’s Challenge that ended the game. With Tedesco on board, they would certainly have won here, but instead the Maroons dug deep, closing out a defensively brilliant game with their best defence of the series.
For Blues fans, then, this one hit hard, since this was an Origin fixture they were supposed to win, and a critical point in transforming the hat trick into the start of a genuine New South Wales dynasty. The Blues will be looking to make the most of Tedesco during next year’s return to regular Origin fixtures, while, on the other side of the Steeden, the Maroons have a lot to celebrate with one of their best victories in years – a tribute to DCE’s ability to galvanise an inexperienced side to Origin glory.