Finest Origin series of modern era poised for thrilling finale

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JT kicking from the sideline to send the series to a decider. Photo: ABC

Queensland’s victory in Origin two will go down as one of the finest in recent memory. After the first game of the series, all the talk was centred around why the Blues were on the verge of a series victory, and how a dynasty, built around the likes of Fifita, Tedesco and Peats, was beginning to take shape. Journalists, media personalities and former players were trotting out that old line that we’ve become accustomed to hearing over the past few years – Queensland are too old, too slow. NSW, apparently, showed enough in game one to suggest that, just like that, in barely the time it takes to blink, the dominance they’ve had over the Blues for 10 of the past 11 years was over. Finished. So much so that mass changes to the Australian squad, which is currently dominated by Queensland players, were on the horizon. There truly is nothing like a bit of mid series propaganda to light the fuse.

What made the victory even sweeter was not just the fact that Queensland had been completely written off like a bashed up Toyota Land Cruiser circa 1994 after the opening game of the series, but that Thurston – Queensland’s ageless warrior – took to the field at below 100% fitness, played with a dead arm, and still managed to emerge the better of the two halfbacks, if not by a great margin. His kicking game was, by his own standards, below par, as were large chunks of his game. But still, he managed to get the job done in the only way he knows how; through determination and a burning desire to win at all costs. That is the JT way.

Much like he did against the Broncos in the Grand Final 18 months ago, Thurston produced a clutch play under the most pressurised circumstances imaginable, on the greatest stage of all. On that occasion it was a field goal in golden point. Last Wednesday it was a conversion from the sideline to put Queensland two points ahead and seal a series levelling victory that would see his swansong come in a game with something on the line. You couldn’t have scripted it any better, other than to remove the part where scans of his injured shoulder reveal he is no chance of taking the field in the decider.

Queensland’s junior brigade of Hess, Wallace, Holmes and Glasby gave fans’ heart palpitations at times – missing tackles and coughing up the ball in the Blues’ red zone – but were solid if not reliable. Glasby was the least impressive of the four debutants, letting in two tries through defence better suited to the rough-and-tumble of park footy, and will be lucky to retain his spot for the decider. But Queensland rarely mess with a winning formula. He will return in Origin three bigger and better for the experience, but needs to lift in the decider if he wishes to put his name permanently on a Maroons jersey and stave off bids from those stepping on his heels at club level.

Gavin Cooper, on his return to the side, played a game that, on another day, would have earned him far more attention and the lion’s share of the plaudits. Josh Jackson was, quite bizarrely, named man of the match, but it was Cooper who stood out like a lollipop man on a main road for the Maroons alongside Napa and McGuire, making 47 tackles and running for 108 metres.

Many more players deserve to be praised; Slater and Gagai quite obviously the stand-outs. But it was a collective effort from the Queensland side that allowed them to claw back some ascendency and reduce the ten point deficit.

Queensland’s first half was one of the most undisciplined and error-ridden in recent history. Too often they were hauled into touch by the NSW outside backs running a short side play that showed they had little understanding of the slippery under-foot conditions. To compound this issue, they were also sloppy with the ball, losing it when an attacking opportunity was beginning to form. At this stage it looked as if they had reverted back to the Queensland side of old that was wiped out by Johns and Fittler et al. in the days preceding the hand grenade thrown by Brian Fletcher, so frustrating was the way they squandered possession and blew try-scoring opportunities.

But NSW, like clockwork, threw away what looked like a forgone conclusion at half-time in a twenty-minute period from hell. The referees have been blamed. In fact, it appears they are the sole reason for the Blues’ loss if expletive laden social media rants are anything to go by. But that should not excuse the woeful second half performances of Pearce, NSW’s no. 1 scapegoat, and Hayne in particular, who would’ve put the home side in an impregnable position had he thrown a pass to an unmarked Morris just minutes before the interval.

There were refereeing blunders that had a bearing on the contest, namely the forward pass to Thurston out of dummy-half and the block on Jarryd Hayne, but it was the selfishness of a few privileged players coupled with a flawed game-plan that did the damage. Not the whistle-blowers.

It remains to be seen whether NSW are capable of replicating their first-up performance in the decider. It’s true, Queensland are at their most vulnerable right now and the future looks as if it belongs to NSW. When Thurston, Smith and Cronk part ways with the Maroons – perhaps as early as two weeks from now – Queensland will be required to unearth players with the skill and game awareness of Maloney and Pearce, who have been there and done it all before. Those currently on Queensland’s radar – Milford, Norman and Munster – are relatively fresh on the scene and are yet to taste premiership success. Maloney and Pearce have lifted a trophy together at the Roosters. They know each other’s games like the back of their hand. Queensland simply cannot match this experience.

If we’re using past performances as an indicator however, NSW will do what they always seem content with doing after a loss; make excuses, play the blame game, and twiddle their thumbs a la Homer J. Simpson at the nuclear plant while they wait for Laurie and his advisors to give them the answers. If this is the approach they take into a game that will mean more to the Queenslanders than their eighth series victory in a row, than they might as well not bother showing up. This is the departure of a future immortal we are talking about. And yes, I’m referring to Cronk.

52 – 6 was the result the last time NSW visited Suncorp Stadium for a decider. It also came at a time when NSW pundits were predicting the beginning of a Blues dynasty. Two years on and the same old mistakes are being made – complacency, arrogance and underestimating a team and its superstars that have embarrassed the Blues on 11 of the past 12 occasions.

Queensland, on the other hand, are seemingly revitalised after a horror show of a first game that was met with the usual ‘Queensland hypocrite’ rhetoric from certain outlets. Spare me the ‘dad’s army’ nonsense. This is a side capable of winning their third series in a row. Injuries to Boyd and Thurston, who will both be missing come Origin three, will hurt their chances. But if Queensland play with the same desire and shut down Fifita, Trbojevic, and Tedesco, than there is no reason why they can’t send off one of the modern day greats, possibly more, in style.

The critics who claimed Queensland’s time was up, and jumped on the Blues’ dynasty bandwagon no sooner than the eighty minutes was up at Suncorp Stadium in the opening game, have just witnessed what it takes to bounce back in Origin. When NSW departed from the style of play that served them so well in the first game, Queensland sniffed blood and pulled off a comeback victory typical of their never say die attitude. That’s the difference between the two sides at the moment. While NSW were busy organising how they would hoist the shield, Queensland were plotting and scheming ways to shut down Fifita. Had NSW had their wits about them, they would have been doing the same for Slater and Thurston. Instead, they were gripped by the hand of complacency, perhaps expecting to win. Which goes a long way to explaining why they went missing and never returned shortly after Gagai crossed in the 55th minute.

This is Origin. The game isn’t finished until eighty minutes have passed and the ball is as far as humanly possible from those capable of pulling off the kind of superhuman efforts that define the unpredictability of Origin.

The only question that now remains is whether NSW stand by Jarryd Hayne, or whether they opt in favour of 2016 villain Dylan Walker, who has been in scintillating form for Manly; the youngest of the Trbojevic brothers, Tom Turbo; or start Jack Bird, whose lack of in this discussion is bewildering, in the number four jumper. Hayne’s form at club level, the Tigers game aside, has been far from eye-catching, but then again, you’re compelled to take a punt on him because he is a supreme athlete and his past performances leave you feeling as though you’ve left out one of the modern day greats when he goes unselected.

Laurie has some tough decisions to make. Decisions that will likely decide whether, after five years of service, he’s used up all the get out of jail free cards at his disposal. Because if NSW are incapable of defeating a weakened Queensland side missing a future immortal, then changes will be made across the board. And, as we know, in this day and age, the blame is so often apportioned to the coach.

Close simply won’t cut it.

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