STATE OF ORIGIN: Maroons v. Blues (Suncorp Stadium, 27/6/21, 0-26)
The Blues’ win over Queensland in Townsville was superb, but tonight’s game was even more sublime, cementing 2021 as a milestone Origin series. They may not have piled a half-century on the Maroons this time around, but they did something even more remarkable – they kept Queensland scoreless for only the third time in Origin history, following Game 1 in 1990 and Game 2 in 1994. Even more remarkably, the Blues kept them to zero at Suncorp, after media speculation that they wouldn’t be able to handle back-to-back home fixtures in Queensland.
There were so many sublime moments that you’d be hard pressed to cut it down to a greatest hits package. Nathan Cleary continued to guide from the halves, James Tedesco was all over the park, and Latrell Mitchell built on his spectacular first game performance with an eighty-metre try and some of the best Origin defence in years. Brian To’o had been great the first time around but stepped up in a new way here, targeting Kyle Feldt mercilessly throughout the night, and preventing Feldt scoring what seemed like a certain consolation try at the end.
Jai Arrow got things rolling with a huge opening hit on Daniel Saifiti, and Queensland followed with a couple of big defensive plays, before Tariq Sims recouped some field position with decent post-contact metres. Even so, Nathan Cleary was compelled into an early kick, as Junior Paulo spearheaded a big tackle on Tino Faasuamalueai, midway through the next set, to match the Maroons’ energy. James Tedesco glimpsed space up the left on his next carry, but he was stopped by Felise Kaufusi, while Cleary’s second kick was as hurried as his first.
Daly Cherry-Evans mirrored Teddy with a deft dash out of dummy half next time the Maroons had ball in hand, before chipping to the right corner, where Brian To’o took it well. Teddy responded in kind on the next New South Wales set, after the Blues got the first restart off a Munster ruck error, when he almost broke through the line with DCE as last line of defence. Dane Gagai now stepped up, forcing a knock-on from Latrell Mitchell a moment later, only for big Tino to lose the footy into a Turbo tackle, while looking for an offload out the back.
The Blues glimpsed an overlap on the right side, and headed left when it closed up, although they didn’t get to the end of their sweep, due to an even more dramatic defensive effort from Gagai, who dumped Jarome Luai on his back as he was preparing to shift the footy out to the wing. Queensland now got their first restart, off a Latrell offside, as DCE booted it over the sideline to get his men some breathing-space before weathering the next Blues onslaught.
Cleary now continued the right side momentum from early in the previous set, actually busting through the Queensland defence, dummying to the wing and skipping around Tino. He came close to an assist for Teddy, who would have collected the footy and crossed over if not for the first real trysaver of the game, from Christian Welch. Latrell had the next big play, effecting a one-on-one strip on Kyle Feldt at the tail end of a terrific Luai kick, wrapping his arm around the big winger and pinning him on the ground as he wrestled the Steeden back.
The Blues had been trying to consolidate on the right edge since the start of the game, and it only took them two tackles to make good here. It was a beautiful left sweep – Cleary to Teddy, and then a wide ball from Teddy out to Josh Ado-Carr, who crossed over for his ninth Origin try, after not scoring a single point in Melbourne’s decimation of the Wests Tigers last week. This was a particularly worrying moment for Munster, who was caught in the middle of field, as well as for Arrow, who was forced to defend on the edge where his no. 6 would usually be.
Cleary added the extras and Latrell continued to build field position for the Blues, slamming in a set later to tumble Valentine Holmes back over the line from half a metre out – the second time he’d pinned a Cowboy to ground to get his men a fresh set. Cleary, Luai and Tedesco reprised the sweep out to the Foxx on the second tackle, and the Blues stayed around that part of the park until Turbo brought it back to the middle, setting up a left edge play that saw the footy move through the halves again, and into a freakish offload from Latrell out to To’o.
This would have been the best try of the season if To’o had found space, but Holmes was in position – just – to somersault them both into touch, while the Maroons got six again early in their next tackle count, off a ruck error from Cameron Murray. Tariq Sims got the first penalty of the night a play later, for lifting Gagai above the horizontal, although Munster faltered on the fourth tackle, hesitating whether to shift it left or run it, before this accumulation of field position fragmented on the last, when DCE flicked it out to Kurt Capewell on the left wing.
Capewell was cleaned up easily, while this last play from Daly reflected a set where the halves simply hadn’t combined or capitalised on the concessions from New South Wales. Still, this had been a defensive challenge for the Blues, and so Cleary played it safe with the kick, sending it long and high to restore some field position and give his men a brief breather. DCE responded in kind on the next set, while also angling for a daring 40/20, but the footy came up short, while the Blues grew more elastic and expansive next time they had ball in hand.
Queensland got their next shot off a rare Tedesco error under the high ball – or the low ball, as he waited for Munster’s kick to bounce, got a hand to it, then two hands to it, only to slip as he was circling to finally contain it. He made a valiant effort to keep at least one hand on the Steeden, spinning around like a centrifuge, but to no avail, although this error ended up working in the Blues’ favour, since it set up Latrell for an absolutely sublime breakaway try.
Everything seemed poised for a Maroons comeback here, right down to a Saifiti offside that got them six again, and yet Latrell absorbed all their briefly glimpsed momentum by intercepting a Holmes cut-out ball that might well have been a try assist, or at least set up a try on the right wing, and careening eighty metres down the park to score the next New South Wales try. Gagai drew in from the left, and then drew back when he saw Coates accelerating from the right, but the Brisbane winger only got the slightest of ankle taps as Latrell scored.
Cleary added a second conversion, the Blues had twelve unanswered points, and nearly had eighteen more a set later, off Turbo’s first linebreak up the right wing. Murray would have certainly scored if he’d caught the assist cleanly but he shifted his focus to Munster just as Turbo flipped in the footy, and ended up knocking it in goal instead. This was a huge let-off for the Maroons, but even so New South Wales got six again on their very next set, when Turbo got a Murray a let-off by taking his place and receiving a similar assist from the Foxx.
The first Blues try had been a terrific sweep, the second a freakish long-ranger, and the third had the spine syncing beautifully, starting with a skittering run along the ruck that saw Teddy dispose of several defenders before flicking the footy out the back to Cleary, who started a sweep that ended with Turbo popping it out to Ado-Carr. The Foxx shifted it back inside at just the right moment, just as Coates got to him, returning it to Turbo, who tucked it under his right arm, curved around to score untouched, and set up Cleary for an easy conversion.
Queensland were starting to lag, and tempers started to flare in the last five minutes before half time, due to errors from Luai and Gagai, and an illegal strip from Isaah Yeo, that saw their team mates storm in to exchange a few heated words. Ninety seconds out from the siren, Haas tumbled onto Holmes’ leg at an awkward angle, but there was no hyperextension, as the Maroons completed their final set before the break. DCE started a left sweep on the penultimate play, but Mitchell spearheaded a pack effort to drag and dump Gagai into touch.
This was the last big moment of the first half – Mitchell definitively winning his mini-feud with Gagai – but the Blues had to come back just as strong to keep Queensland out in the back forty. Since 2015, New South Wales had led at half time in thirteen games for eight wins and five losses, so this was by no means a sure thing, even if the visitors had coasted to their first game win on the back of only three tries when they headed to the sheds up in Townsville.
Francis Molo made seven metres after contact on the first set back, while Kaufusi stormed in to prevent Angus Crichton getting an offload away on the fifth tackle for New South Wales. Munster flexed by calling out for a 25-metre pass after Holmes collected the next kick, and then bombed at the end of the set, but Ado-Carr was safe beneath it, while Teddy took runs on the second and fourth tackle to get Cleary in place for an equally powerful kick to Coates.
For the first time, this was starting to feel like a regular arm-wrestle, since both teams were matching each other so calmly that some of the Origin patina had momentarily worn off. You sensed that the next one-man effort, or error, would prove critical, since there had been no errors or penalties since the break – until Ado-Carr and Turbo reprised their previous scoring combination up the right edge, only for Murray to cop a technical offside that denied the try.
It all happened so quickly that Queensland effectively absorbed the Foxx and Turbo’s momentum as they commenced the first short-range attack of this second half. DCE chipped to the right wing on the last, Feldt got both hands to it, at least with the fingertips, but knocked it on when To’o’s context put him off balance – a stunning riposte to those commentators who suggested that the Panthers winger might not be tall enough for Origin.
All of a sudden, the Blues had taken their momentum back, and intensified it tenfold, as Teddy danced around the ruck and offloaded to Crichton, who shifted it out to Luai for a linebreak and pass back in to Turbo. Cleary went long to his fullback on the next play, Teddy slid to ground right on the line as six again was called out, and Haas surged at the chalk in his wake, forcing Molo and Holmes to struggle with him for a full five seconds before the tackle ended.
For a moment, the set wavered, when Cleary was forced to collect the footy on the half-volley, but Haas steadied the ship with another big charge, this time beneath the posts, before DCE was pinged for an escort on Sims, as Cleary dabbed the ball forward on the left edge. The Maroons couldn’t stand much more here, so it was hard to tell whether the decision to kick for goal was a sign of residual respect, or reflected a reassurance that the Blues could simply score on the next set. In any case, Cleary made it 20-0, and New South Wales got rolling again.
To’o was even better under DCE’s next kick, taking it cleanly before Feldt could get there, although that turned out to be due to an escort from Latrell. This was crunch time for the Maroons, who desperately had to score now, but as they swept from right to left it was hard to tell whether they had any real vision or organisation here. Certainly, Coates, who normally plays on the other wing, wasn’t up to the most spectacular defence so far from Turbo, who sped across from midfield to tap his ball-carrying arm just when a try seemed to be locked in.
This was every bit as good as a try for New South Wales, while Feldt got some small reprieve by taking Cleary’s next chip cleanly in the midst of a strong kick chase. Meanwhile, Cleary was clutching his shoulder, but he seemed to be fine again soon, ending the set with a towering bomb that Munster collected as confidently as Feldt. Despite some big moments, including a killer run from Luai, who put his body on the line as he charged into the Maroons’ big men, the recent New South Wales surge had waned slightly, so they needed another set piece soon.
Luai’s next kick was one of his best, but Holmes still took it, and offloaded to Gagai a play later, while the Blues conceded a pair of penalties in quick succession – crowding from Liam Martin, and holding back from Isaah Yeo, who was lucky not to be sent to the bin on the cusp of the final quarter. Munster continued this Maroons consolidation with his next kick, which Teddy had to clean up in goal before facing a Queensland wall who were never going to let him back in. All of a sudden, it felt just plausible that the hosts might stage a late comeback.
Welch took the first carry, and Papalii the second, before Luai and Paulo held up DCE before he could open up any options on the edges. The game seemed to hang in the balance as the Maroons spread it left, where Holmes scooped up a bouncing ball, before Munster chipped to the right wing, and Feldt seemed to have knocked on in the contest with To’o. The replay showed him getting his arms around the Penrith winger’s neck, but flipping the footy backwards, before Gagai got a second touch to it right on the dead ball line – again backwards.
If Feldt and Gagai had both been cleared, then this would have been a try for DCE – and a good enough try to galvanise the Maroons into a final quarter comeback. Instead, the replay showed that Gagai had planted an album on the dead ball line just as he popped it back, and the Blues got a seven tackle set instead of conceding the first Queensland try of the game. Still, the Maroons got another shot at the Blues’ line at the end of their next set, when Ben Hunt booted through a truly treacherous floating bomb that utterly defied To’o in the corner.
They got six again on the first tackle, off a Turbo error, and Andrew McCullough crashed over beside the left post a play later. Paulo and Yeo did well to hold him up, while the Maroons suffered their direst moment on the third tackle, when Holmes booted it at speed to the left corner, where Ado-Carr decelerated to watch it tumble into touch as Coates tried to tap it back in goal. The Blues got a restart of their own late in the next set, when Welch infringed the ruck, as Luai almost broke through the line, and Cleary collected a Paulo ball out the back.
Feldt now had another rough patch, as Luai showed Holmes how it’s done on the left edge, shimmering the Steeden off the side of his boot to trap the North Queensland winger in goal. Feldt then didn’t kick the dropout hard enough, and the Blues had another penalty right on the Maroons’ line. This time they chose to tap and go – and it paid off on tackle three, when Teddy headed right, got on the outside of Hunt and sent out a superb flick offload, through a David Fifita ankle tap, for Ado-Carr’s second try of the night, making it 26-0 after Cleary’s kick.
By this stage, the Maroons had a 76-6 scoreline in the first two games, both of which had been at home venues, so it was critical that they score a try here to take some pride into the third match – especially since they’d only been kept to nil twice in Origin history, in 1990 and 1994. Yet their next effort just crystallised To’o’s supremacy over Feldt in this particular game, as he stripped the footy from his quarry’s grasp, from an onside position, forcing a knock-on just when the try seemed absolutely guaranteed – and this was the Blues’ night in a nutshell.
Cleary risked a daring cut-out ball to Turbo a set later, but the Manly fullback didn’t quite manage to cross over for another try here – a try that would have placed him equal with the top tryscorers in a single Origin series. Hunt did well to bring Cleary’s grubber back and yet the Blues survived the next set, as Tedesco continued to shine on all fronts, trying to bust his way put of a couple of tackles with three minutes on the clock. While Holmes managed to take DCE’s last kick, he didn’t make it to the line, and so the Blues had the last complete set.
There was a big contrast between DCE’s rousing victory speech at the end of last year and his sobering concession to the Blues’ supremacy here, while the New South Welshmen were high on such a historic match. They’d kept Queensland scoreless, at Suncorp, and come away with a 76-6 scoreline over both matches to secure the 2021 Origin Shield. Here’s hoping, then, that they come away with a spectacular celebration match when they host the Maroons for the first and last time this Origin season at Stadium Australia, whether crowds are back or not.
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