Brad Fittler might have won three from four Origin fixtures since taking over from Laurie Daley, but tonight’s game at Accor was a sobering spectacle after the sublime pair of wins that started last year’s Blues campaign. New South Wales were without Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell and Ryan Papenhuyzen, while Freddy had replaced Josh Ado-Carr with Daniel Tupou, making for a reconfigured backline that meant James Tedesco had to showcase his captaincy genius at every moment – and he deliverered one of his most inspiring performances.
Even that wasn’t enough, however, to foil a Maroons outfit desperate to make up for 2021 with an away win of their own (only their tenth ever at Accor). Put that down in part to Billy Slater, who made an immediate impact as the first player since Paul Vautin, in 1995, to take the reins as Queensland coach without any club experience. His vision for what Queensland should and could be propelled the Maroons to a sublime surge in the back half, much of it led by Cam Munster, whose sheer footy vision escalates exponentially with each new game.
Nathan Cleary took the kickoff, Daly Cherry-Evans the opening catch, and Josh Papalii the opening carry, as Isaah Yeo came in, ricocheted off the big Queenslander, and got up limping with barely ten seconds on the clock. For a moment, he looked set to come off, but he rallied himself for a hit on Felise Kaufusi on the next play, while Munster launched his first bomb from halfway, and the kick chase followed suit, preventing Brian To’o making metres when he took it on the full.
Payne Haas palmed off a couple of defenders midway through the set, and the Blues got the first position of the night with a repeat set down the Maroons’ end, off a Ben Hunt touch, so it was agonising when Liam Martin knocked on a Cleary pass during his first foray into the red zone. He had space to cross over too, so New South Wales had to resume their flow on the next set, especially since Munster was at the thirty for the kick this time (even if there was some disorganisation in getting the footy across to him).
Teddy followed Haas with a rallying run up the middle, leaning his way into the defence and looking for space, before Kotoni Staggs spearheaded a three man pack to crash Xavier Coates to ground early in the next Queensland set. It was the best combined hit so far, and yet it just seemed to galvanise Kurt Capewell, who made good metres up the left, and looked set to break through. New South Wales regathered, however, while Teddy continued to calm them by taking his first high ball coolly, on the left edge, as To’o got some breathing-space.
The skipper then reprised his earlier run up the middle, and Cleary was in place for a good kick angle, so it was frustrating when he booted it too far to gift the visitors seven tackles. Big Tino drove it up the middle, DCE came close to a bust at the twenty, and Hunt followed Cleary with an overlong kick. In this case it was a grubber, and while Val Holmes did well to chase it down, Tedesco was as unflappable as ever, waiting calmly for it to bump into touch with the North Queensland backliner on his heels.
The Blues got a restart a play later, off a Papalii ruck error, and set up Cleary for his first kick from the twenty. He popped it across to the right edge, where Daniel Tupou failed his first Origin test by losing it into an aerial contest with Coates, who got some joy after Staggs’ heavy treatment by saving a New South Wales try here. Determined to reset the rhythm, Damien Cook came in for a monster shot on Tino, and actually slammed him to ground, before Tupou started making up for his error by looking for post-contacts early in the next count.
Things accelerated quickly for the Queenslanders a play later, however, as Yeo dropped the footy, Selwyn Cobbo got his first touch in the Maroons jersey, and a New South Wales pack gathered to shove him over the sideline, only to cop a penalty for themselves. With DCE driving it from twenty to ten on tackle one, this was the first sustained close-range attack of the night, so it was a big letoff when Tino knocked on a short ball from his skipper in front of the posts, thanks in part to some rushing defence from Tariq Sims and Jarome Luai.
Munster, Carrigan and Capewell smothered Tupou on the first run out of the scrum, marking the start of an especially committed defensive period for Queensland. Papalii shut down Haas even more categorically on the next play, and while Yeo managed to pick up fourteen metres on the next carry, Sims only just got it over halfway, while Cleary took the kick under serious pressure. Cobbo made good metres on the return, and everything seemed set for another Maroons acceleration – until Holmes followed Yeo with a cold drop early in the count.
The Blues headed right, where Coates tapped on a Tedesco cut-out pass, and conceded a full set inside his team’s twenty. Three plays later, Cookie came up with a beautiful bullet ball to the left – so fast and precise that Luai and Cleary just had to lean into its momentum, and their natural halves synergy, to create space for Wighton to crash over for his third New South Wales try, for his first stint in the no. 4 jersey all year. Even then, this was no easy feat for the Raiders’ five-eighth, who had both Gagai and Cobbo standing in his way.
Tucking the Steeden under his arm, Wighton utterly disposed of Gagai, and then smashed through Cobbo at the death, parlaying all the elegance of the setup into exactly the brutal putdown the Blues needed as they glimpsed the end of the first quarter. Cleary’s aim from the sideline wasn’t quite pinpoint enough, as the footy ricocheted off the post, so it remained a four point game as DCE trapped To’o on the line with one of his biggest bombs so far, and Carrigan followed with a massive tackle to put Wighton in his place, ten metres out.
With those two setbacks, Cleary only got to the forty for his next kick, while the Maroons got their next burst of position off a Cook error, only for Gagai to misread a DCE double pump and lose the footy over his right shoulder. Still, the Maroons got their next shot soon enough, off a Junior Paulo error, as Munster almost broke through a hole on the left, his men got six again, and Carrigan drove it hard beside the left post, hanging above the ground for a good five seconds before New South Wales mustered their most desperate pack so far.
Wighton conceded a further burst of position with an offside penalty, and Queensland opted to tap and go, confident now in their accelerating flow. Harry Grant became the next Maroon to crash over, this time from dummy half, but once again the Blues scrambled on their line, as it all came down to a crossfield chip that Liam Martin somehow managed to clean up on his right edge. It was the biggest let off so far, so New South Wales just focused on working it as far from their chalk as possible, until Cleary booted a longish one from the thirty.
The Maroons seemed momentarily exhausted at the start of the next set, especially since Coates was now leaving the field for good after sustaining an injury a few minutes before, as Jeremiah Nanai became the next Origin debutant. Yet Carrigan woke them up with a barnstorming midfield sequel to his charge beside the posts, accelerating so quickly that the speed got the best of DCE, who slipped on the turf, and careened straight into Wighton, who was briefly scrutinised when Queensland send the contact upstairs.
Luckily, the Bunker went for the sensible decision, ruling that the Raider had only made a slight touch, and handing the ball back to the Blues as the half hour mark drew near. Ryan Matterson was also fresh off the bench, and got rolling with ten post-contacts up the middle, as the Maroons entered a mixed period in terms of forward passes. Halfway through the count, Grant flicked out what looked like a forward ball and got away with it, while Capewell ended with a flat ball to Holmes that ended up being called forward.
Val had space ahead of him, so this was a good outcome for New South Wales, although they got their own forward pass heartbreak a few sets later, when Tupou made his second disappointing play of the night. This time he managed to climb above Holmes to take the footy on the full, and from there all he had to do was hand it onto Teddy, in what should have been an easy enough task given their Roosters synergy. Instead, he flicked it forward, and by the time Teddy curved around Ponga to hit the chalk, the whistle had already blown.
This was the most egregious error so far – bad enough to motivate the Maroons into their best right sweep and best overall sequence (so far) on their very next set. Grant fed it to Ponga, who popped a cut-out ball past Tino and Gagai to Cobbo, who immediately summoned the edge magic he’s brought to the Broncos this year. Shifting the footy to his left hand, he steamed down the sideline, and then booted it so sharply with his non-dominant (right) foot that Gagai had it down before Wighton could secure the ankle tap.
Holmes added the extras, and just like that Queensland were two ahead on the cusp of half time, although they didn’t get a chance to go back-to-back when Reuben Cotter put it down midway through the restart. There were two and a half minutes left on the clock, and the Blues made the most of it, as Tupou won six again up the right on play one, Matto took a steadying run on tackle two, and Cleary popped a short pass across for Sims to bring it five metres out, where Paulo apotheosised all that acceleration with a sublime short-range run.
Receiving a short dummy half ball from Cookie, the big enforcer shimmied off the right boot and broke through the line, only for the try to be denied due to a Cam Murray obstruction on Carrigan. It was all the more agonising in that this was a team try in spirit, with each tackle cascading so rapidly into the next that it felt like the Steeden had moved down the park in a single play. Conversely, this was a resounding finale for the Maroons, even if Munster missed a field goal flex fifteen seconds out from the siren.
The first forty ended as suspensefully as it had unfolded, with the Blues building space up the right edge, where Staggs came up with a high-speed kick, and Holmes delivered the fastest run of the night to bump it into touch on the siren. New South Wales had the first set back, but couldn’t get Cleary into the Queensland end for his kick – a surprisingly shallow affair that landed thirty metres out from the Maroons line to grant the visitors a decent amount of time in Blues territory before Teddy came up with a desperate catch within the ten.
A pair of strong runs from the skipper and a follow-up effort from Cookie got them over halfway this time, as Cleary booted it from the other forty, and the chase surged in to hold up Cobbo at the twenty. Play paused a moment later for Nanai, who came down awkwardly on his right ankle while trying to prevent To’o from busting through a Cobbo ankle tap. He was on the turf for a good couple of minutes, meaning it felt more like a fresh start to the second stanza when he was finally lifted off the park to make way for big Tino to return to the park.
Meanwhile, Cotter took on Nanai’s duties, Cowboy for Cowboy, as Murray delivered a monster run to re-inject this disrupted New South Wales set with some fresh energy. Teddy did the same a set later, making ten metres up the left, where he gave Cotter his first big challenge on the edge, wrestling away from the tackle to put down fifteen more. Cleary tried to summon a Lachie Lewis-like calm for his kick from the thirty, and while Wighton got a hand to it, he could’t secure it, sending it spinning over the dead line to concede seven tackles.
Collins may have been having issues in backplay, but his men now delivered the best acceleration for either team so far. Ponga laid the platform by searching for a break up the middle, and Munster built on his vision, dodging his way across the defensive line before breaking through for what looked certain to be a try or assist run. He had time to make a few dummies to elude Cook, but in the end left it a little too long, leaving Teddy just enough space to smash in and shut down the play, if not the escalating momentum.
Tupou proved his mettle a moment later, wrapping his wingspan around Ponga, and then diving on Kaufusi before he could clean up the Steeden when it rattled free. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as DCE condensed all this postiton into one of the simplest scrum plays I’ve ever seen – straight off the base, through the line, and behind the posts. So sublime was the play in its starkness that Sims actually overread it, and over-chased accordingly, as DCE sunk into a proportionate calm, strolling in spirit to the line, in total command of the park.
It may well be an series-defining play in 2022, and put the Maroons triple New South Wales here, as Holmes added another conversion to make it a 12-4 lead. They came close to scoring on the restart too, as Munster shanked it to the right corner, where Cobbo caught it and offloaded to Cotter, who had Munster back on his inside, but couldn’t quite get the assist across. Still, there was no question that Queensland had peaked since the break, inducing Brad Fittler to bring on Haas a little earlier than expected to stem the flow of points.
Stephen Crichton came on at the same time for his Origin debut and tried to change the rhythm immediately (and perhaps prove his mettle, as the youngest player on the park) by dumping Munster on his back. Instead, he gave Queensland the position they needed for their next try, four plays into the subsequent set. It was just as simple as the last one, but even more mercurial, and boiled down to a psychological battle, a game of brinkmanship, between Ponga and Cleary out on the Maroons’ left edge.
Sensing that Cleary wouldn’t slide in time if he bluffed long enough, Ponga goose-stepped, dummied, and eventually shot the best cut-out of the game to Holmes, who took it on the chest, but couldn’t convert to put his men beyond a two converted try lead. Still, the Maroons had Origin flow now, and that’s a step beyond regular footy flow, strong enough to get them through a sudden period of short range New South Wales attack just after the restart. The final quarter was on the horizon, and it was paramount that the Blues score next.
Twice, they built good position, and twice, Queensland intercepted the footy. The first time Teddy broke through several tackles up the left to make it nine out, an important gesture given how heroically Nanai had come in on Matto a couple of plays before, his time on the turf now relegated to the distant past. Munster intercepted the footy, once again almost broke his way up the centre, and was ropeable when Kaufusi put it down a play later. New South Wales had a precious scrum feed, and had to deliver immediately.
Instead, Murray flicked back a blind offload with Carrigan and Grant on him, and found DCE waiting to collect it, paving the way for the third dramatic changeover – not quite an intercept, but just as sudden. It came five metres out from the New South Wales line, where Munster combined with Tino to slam the Steeden from Wighton’s grasp, before scooping it up and setting his sights on the chalk for what would have been one of the all-time great Origin tries if Cleary and To’o hadn’t combined for the toughest tackle of the game so far.
Even then, the Maroons weren’t done drawing on the energy of this hit-up, as Tino, the other tackler, now tried to smash over on the left edge, forcing Cleary into an even tougher play – directly beneath him, hands wrapped around the footy, to prevent it making contact with the grass. This ushered in the critical clutch period of the game, as Munster considered a sweep to the left, only to take the tackle, and DCE headed right, but shifted it back to Carrigan in the centre, before Queensland finally shifted it right, where Ponga came up with it.
Blues now crowded in from every side, forcing the Newcastle captain to actually take a few steps back to reset his rhythm, meaning the set came down to a DCE chip to the same corner. Cobbo got hands to it, but when he came down RCG was waiting for him with a game-changing tackle, and the Blues worked it back from their own line to score the next (and last) try. Tupou got them rolling with a tough run, straight into Cotter and Hunt, Yeo followed in his slipstream, and Cookie built from dummy half, before flicking a short one out for Teddy.
This was arguably the apotheosis of Tedesco’s night at captain, as he slid past DCE and booted the Steeden at speed. Cleary chased it down, Holmes got there first, and it felt like the Blues might have botched their last chance of the night, as Queensland delivered one of their more relaxed recent sets, and New South Wales looked set to receive a real bludger for their next one. Yet a hand in the ruck from Cotter changed everything, setting up Luai to target the elusive space between Gagai and DCE with a short ball for Murray three plays later.
Ponga was last line of defence, but couldn’t stop the try, and so we were back to a six point game once Cleary added the extras. For a brief beat, the Blues glimpsed greatness, as Wighton broke into space on the restart, careening up the sideline and reaching the twenty, only for Crichton to culminate an inconsistent night by allowing Munster to strip the footy a few plays later. By contrast, Hunt broke into space up the left soon after, and almost gained enough position for Holmes to score a final try on the wing, forcing one last Blues scramble.
Even then, the Maroons came close to a team try here, playing hot potato with the footy until an early hit from Papalii gave New South Wales one last set with 43 seconds on the clock. On the penultimate play Cleary twisted and spun, but couldn’t get the offload away; on the final play Yeo twisted and spun, but came down a few centimetres short, just below the crossbar. It was an appropriate ending to an agonising game for Blues supporters – and a massive boost for an underdog Queensland team as they gee themselves up for Game II in Perth.