STATE OF ORIGIN: Blues v. Maroons (Cbus Super Stadium, 14/7/21, 18-20)

The Blues had a chance to make history in the most epic way when they met the Maroons for a last-minute fixture at Cbus on Wednesday. New South Wales hadn’t secured a clean sweep since 2000, and they’d never had to contend with an Origin series that took place entirely in Queensland. Even with Nathan Cleary off the park, and Kalyn Ponga back on, they had a significant shot here, but a deft Ben Hunt double in the back half proved too much, while the Foxx didn’t get a chance to mirror Michael O’Connor and Jarryd Hayne as top Blues tryscorer.

Xavier Coates took the first carry and was bundled back beyond his ten metre line by a three-man tackle before Josh Papalii marked his twentieth Origin match with a pair of big runs. Tedesco was safe under the high ball, while Moses did well with his first kick in New South Wales colours, soaring it down the right edge where Valentine Holmes nevertheless managed to collect it on the full. Kurt Capewell fumbled the footy backwards on the next set, but the Hammer regathered it, while Latrell wasn’t quite as lucky when he knocked on a second later.

The Maroons now had the first field position, and it was bolstered by the first penalty of the match – for Cameron Murray, who was called out for lying in the ruck. After only scoring six points in the first two games combined, the Queenslanders opted to put points on the board here, as Holmes booted it through the posts to make it a penalty kick lead. The Blues had to shut down this burgeoning Maroons momentum on the next set, and Murray was the man for the job, making up for his error with a spectacular one-on-one strip on the very first tackle.

Dale Finucane collected a short ball from Damien Cook and took it right to the line on the next play, laying the foundation for the first short-range assault of the game. The Blues felt Nathan Cleary’s absence for the first time now too, as Moses almost lost the footy midway through the count, and the set disintegrated on the left edge, where Latrell grubbered into the defence, Kalyn Ponga knocked it back, and Jack Wighton collected it five metres out. Wighton tried to flip it back, but instead sent it over the sideline to gift Queensland more possession.

Still, the Blues survived the next set, and were back in first gear a minute later, after a pair of ruck errors from Papalii and Felise Kaufusi right on the Maroons’ line. Latrell made up for his mistimed grubber by chasing down an errant pass that sailed over Wighton’s shoulder, and then danced past a couple of Queensland tackles to bring the ball back to the ten metre line. Two plays later he completed this splendid run, receiving the footy at the ten metre mark, and pivoting away from three Maroons to cross over untouched and curve behind the posts.

Full credit, too, to the New South Wales outside backs for putting down the platform, as well as to Cook for the breadth of the pass, which gave Latrell ample space to elude Dane Gagai out on the wing. Latrell took on goal-kicking duties a moment later, shooting the Steeden through to make it a four-point lead. After a spotty opening – at least compared to the first two games – the Blues had seamlessly regathered here due to the precision of Latrell’s vision, so if they could score another try quickly they’d be well on their way to a significant surge.

The big men made strong metres on the restart, rolling sixty-five metres downfield with no real resistance, before Ponga leaped a metre off the ground to collect the high ball. Still, the Maroons couldn’t capitalise on this gymnastic display, kicking from deep within their own end before Brian To’o responded with his first strong kick return of the match. For a brief moment it looked as if Holmes had reset the game in the most spectacular way, slamming into Moses, rattling the footy free, and scooping it up in his right hand to make his way over the NSW line.

Yet the call came back as a Holmes knock-on, since Moses had been in the midst of passing when he knocked the footy free, giving the Blues a chance to reabsorb the momentum that Queensland had almost claimed as their own. The game now accelerated a level, as both teams struggled to take control of the energy that had flooded over the field in the wake of Holmes’ run. Holmes himself was the next to tap into it, bringing back a poor Wighton kick, and garnering Queensland’s first restart off a ruck error from Ado-Carr on the very first play.

The Blues got through this set, but there was no doubt that the Maroons were slowly but surely starting to take control, so NSW needed a big play here to reclaim the game as their own. Moses’ next kick was strong, but not strong enough to prevent Ponga collecting it and almost breaking through the line on tackle one. Daly Cherry-Evans followed in his footsteps, and the set briefly paused before Cameron Munster stepped into the spotlight, offloading for Tino Faasuamaleaui to send the Hammer through the line for an elegant Origin try on debut.

The whole play curved out a deft semicircle, as Munster shifted it across to big Tino at the thirty, who arced out to the right edge and popped it across for Tabuia-Fidow to swerve back insdie the posts, setting up Holmes for a straightforward conversion to restore the Maroons’ two-point lead. Two sets later, the Blues got a chance to elasticise, spreading it right on play four, only to pause as Ado-Carr copped a damaging double tackle from Tino and Christian Welch. He got to his feet, but gingerly, and the rhythm was all gone from the end of this set.

This galvanised the Blues into some of their strongest defence so far, at least early in the tackle count, when Wighton and Tariq Sims got their own back with a two-man hit on Welch. Teddy had been restless to break through the line all night, and searched again for a space on his next carry, but the Queensland wall was as staunch now as the Blues had been in the first two games. It was a big shift, then, when Murray made a hospital grubber after recovering the high ball, leaving time for Turbo to storm in and slam Munster straight over the sideline.

This was the chance the Blues needed to reset the narrative, so it was agonising when Finucane knocked on under the posts on the opening play. The Queensland scrum feed could prove critical for determining the next passage of the game, so the Blues were lucky to get an aborted set – decent post-contact metres from Francis Molo, to be sure, but then an early DCE kick that Tedesco managed to clean up in the corner. His men got a restart, off a Tino error, so they didn’t lose much field position in the end, but they still needed a big play here.

They got a fresh burst of manpower when Payne Haas came on for Finucane, and Angus Crichton for Junior Paulo, but Wighton didn’t do them any favours with his next kick, booting it much too hard, and conceding seven tackles for the Maroons to play with. Once again, the Maroons got lucky with a lost ball backwards, this time from Munster, who was saved by Papalii, and once again they came close to a breakaway try, when Brian To’o missed the high ball, but made up for it with an absolutely desperate chase to prevent Gagai putting it down.

Even so, the Maroons got the penalty, since the replay showed Latrell changing direction off his right boot and pivoting into Coates for a clear escort, despite the protestations from Tedesco when the decision came down. At first the next Maroons set didn’t look like it was going anywhere, despite a decent run at the posts from Papalii, but DCE took control with a well-timed grubber that set up another To’o-Gagai showdown – and another qualified New South Wales victory, as To’o took it over the line to concede a dropout but save a second try.

While the next set also lost some momentum with a bouncing ball out to the right edge, the Maroons got another bout of field position when Crichton was pinged for an escort on the last play. This was now the most sustained attack from either team so far, especially once Moses gave away a crowding penalty, so it was paramount that Queensland score here to capitalise on their momentum – or at the very least tempt another penalty from New South Wales, who were liable to lose a man to the bin if they made any more infractions right now.

Moses tried to get some joy with a big hit on Ponga, rattling the footy onto the turf, where Murray scooped it up and flipped it across to the Foxx, who looked set for a race down the wing with Tabuia-Fidow. While Moses was deemed to have knocked-on during contact, the Blues survived the Queensland scrum, and got a late burst of field position off a pair of errors from Ben Hunt and big Tino. They didn’t manage to score, though, leaving Queensland with a two point lead as they headed into the break – and a close game ahead of them in stanza two.

The Maroons took a big blow in these final few minutes, though, as Holmes was skittled in a Murray-Moses tackle – not unlike the hit that took out Cleary a couple of weeks ago. When they returned, AJ Brimson was in the squad, and the Hammer shifted out to the wing, while the Foxx had completely recovered after his tackle late in the first half. Both teams rolled up and down their park for their first few sets, as Gagai dumped Tedesco on his back, and Moses and Ado-Carr responded with a huge kick and run respectively to pop the Hammer into touch.

DCE went long with the dropout, Murray lost the footy into a Munster tackle, and tempers flared for the first time on the right edge, only for Brimson to fumble the very next play-the-ball. Wighton tried to go it alone straight out of the scrum, Haas tried to smash over in his wake, and Cook shifted the play right with a bullet pass, as Brimson made up for his error with a strong tackle on Turbo. Again, Wighton searched for a space on the fourth, before Cook secured a second dropout with a neat grubber that Coates was forced to bump over the line.

Latrell clamoured for an obstruction penalty, but the replay showed that Gagai had simply held his ground, so it was a second kick from DCE to get the repeat set underway. He booted it fifty-five metres this time, although Haas and Crichton had it within the thirty by the first tackle, while Haas took a second carry on the third to bring it seven metres out from the line. Finally, on his third effort in two sets, Wighton broke through the line on the left edge, where he received a short ball from Moses, dummied to the wing, and slid through Gagai and DCE.

This was a consolidation moment for the stand-in halves, while there was still some Panther power in the try, which started with a strong pass from Isaah Yeo to Moses. Latrell added his second conversion of the night, and the Blues had a four-point lead with half an hour to go. They’d enjoyed 82% of possession since the break, and settled into a strong restart now, as Latrell searched for space up the left wing, and Moses made one of his highest kicks to momentarily confound the Maroons before they recouped to shut down Ado-Carr’s collect.

The Blues got their first penalty of the game when Papalii was pinged for a high hit on Apisai Koroisau, and Moses responded with another enormous kick, only for Latrell to flip the footy forward into a damaging low tackle from Hunt. The Latrell-Hunt drama continued a set later, when Latrell culminated a spotty period for New South Wales – an error from the Foxx, a ruck infringement for Haas. On the back of that accelerating field position, Hunt built on a close-range DCE run, a quick play-the-ball, and a Flegler decoy to smash over beside the right post.

This was the fastest and most compact try of the game so far- even more impressive in slow motion, as Hunt followed his mismatched effort on Latrell with a trio of David-and-Goliath plays, disposing of Sims, Haas and Wighton as he reached out his arm to get the footy down. Meanwhile the Blues had to scramble further on the restart, when Kurt Capewell broke through the line up the left edge, where Latrell knocked on while desperately trying to intercept a DCE pass that would probably have broken Tabuai-Fidow into open space as well.

They got lucky on the last play, when Coates soared over Latrell and To’o to collect the high ball, only to lose it in goal, giving the Blues seven tackles to try and resume their rhythm. Again, Tedesco’s footwork wasn’t enough to create a hole in the Queensland line, while Latrell was cleaned up on the left wing on play four, forcing Wighton to boot a shallow bomb from the middle of the park. Turbo took it beautifully, and might just have scored himself here if he’d twisted out of the oncoming Maroons pack, but instead he flicked it back to Capewell.

This proved to be a critical error, since Ponga now provided his magic touch, breaking into space up the right edge, and ushering in the fastest and most exciting passage of play for either team so far. When he reached the thirty he passed back inside to Coates, who offloaded a moment later. Ponga reached out his right hand, but couldn’t secure it, leaving Gagai to make an epic effort right on the sideline, where he not only collected the footy cleanly, but tiped it back inside a millisecond before he was tumbled into touch, keeping the play alive.

From there, Ponga tipped it back inside to Coates, the Maroons got six again, and parlayed this rapid acceleration into a shift out to the other wing, where Capewell offloaded for Hunt to curve around to score a double untouched behind the posts. With DCE adding the extras, the Maroons were eight ahead – a significant margin in this particular Origin series – although the Blues got their next chance almost immediately, off an error from Munster on the restart.

Kaufusi conceded six again a minute later, and New South Wales got stuck in for their first close-range attack in ages. Wighton grubbered on the last, Kaufusi conceded six again, To’o mirrored Hunt’s David-and-Goliath effort with a damaging run into Tino on the first tackle, and Paulo followed in his foosteps three plays later. Finally, Moses chipped to the right edge, where Turbo got the tap-back right, sending it to Liam Martin, who fed it to Ado-Carr to sweep back inside the park for the final ingredient – a second kick from Moses, this time a grubber.

Moses’ booted it fifteen metres out, sending it straight down the middle for Koroisau, who in one motion bumped off Munster and collected the footy right beside the left post, becoming the first hooker to score on debut since Cameron Smith in 2002. Hunt’s second try had been spectacular, but this was a step beyond – a perfect fusion of speed and strength (and another little man-big man effort) combined with a seamless assist from Moses with the boot as well. Latrell added his third conversion, and we were back to a two-point contest with ten to go.

The Blues made good metres on the restart, ending with another huge kick from Moses, while Turbo broke through the line a set later, and Tedesco forced a line dropout with a superb grubber down the right edge of the park. With five minutes on the clock, and nobody left on the interchange bench for New South Wales, the next try was going to win the game, so the the Blues had to dig deep here to come away with a last-minute try to mirror Teddy in 2019.

They got their last big chance when Welch was pinged for a swinging arm on Moses halfway down the park – and Latrell chose to go for goal, confident he could parlay his kicking game into a fifty-metre penalty boot here. His aim was perfect but he didn’t have the length, as the Steeden dropped at the last minute – straight into the arms of Ponga. With one minute left, the Maroons simply had to run down the clock, leaving the Blues with just a single final tackle.

With Wighton cleaned up on the last, the Maroons had won the game, largely on the back of Hunt’s splendid double, while the Blues had won the series, and secured a historic pair of opening games even without managing a clean sweep. Tensions were still high as the game ended – Junior Paulo was put on report right on the siren – but as the rain settled in both sides settled down too, content with a series that did credit to them both in different ways, even though losing this game will certainly galvanise New South Wales for Origins to come.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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