Queensland beat New South Wales 18-16 in the second State of Origin game on Wednesday but had no right to. The gap between the two forward packs was such that Queensland should not have been able to recover. The fact that Jonathon Thurston was playing with what was clearly a dud shoulder should have ended the game. But a combination of tactical idiocy and poor edge defence from the Blues, and sheer brilliance from the Queensland back five somehow clawed them in front. That we get a decider is a welcome surprise.
New South Wales built a lead proving game one was no fluke. Like three weeks ago they simply mauled the Queenslanders in the forwards. Last game it was Andrew Fifita who did the damage. This game David Klemmer (16 carries for 173m), Boyd Cordner (17 for 148m) and Jake Trbjovic (11 for 114m) stood out, but the reality was that across the board Queensland couldn’t compete with the big boppers in blue. The only New South Wales forward who didn’t seem to dominate was Josh Jackson, and he was given Man of the Match. Go figure.
For a time the New South Wales spine revelled in this dominance, the halves running the ball square at the Queensland line and creating havoc. The first try to New South Wales was scored by Jarryd Hayne on the edge, but it was born from the threat of the big men inside him. Decoys by Fifita and Cordner running straight close to the line petrified the maroon defence, dragging them inside and leaving Hayne with little work to do. Ten minutes later Maloney again ran straight at the line to the left of the ruck, made an easy break and Brett Morris finished well. Moments later Trbjovic ran hard at the ‘A’ defender, found James Tedesco on the inside and the markers couldn’t help get across in time. Pearce finished this movement and frankly it should have been the game.
But for some reason New South Wales abandoned this plan.
In the second half they continued to dominate in the forwards, only the spine ceased to play straight. Instead the Blues decided to test the Queensland edges. For the last decade they have been unsuccessfully running your standard face/out the back second-man plays. For the last decade these plays have been eaten up by experienced Queensland backs – they did so again here. New South Wales would continue to have good field position, but would fail to add any more points for the rest of the night.
But that didn’t mean that a Queensland comeback was inevitable. The Maroons had simply no capacity to make any running in the middle of the park. Josh Papalii (9 runs for 98m) was the only forward that ran for close to 10 metres a run. Almost every movement that made yards was run outside the second rowers, which is why Queensland spent so much time heading into touch during the game.
Queensland’s back five was forced to do both the work in their own half as well as in attack. Billy Slater was often given the ball in second man plays that had no space, asked to create and commonly obliged. In addition to his two tries, Dane Gagai had 24 runs (for 189m), hurtling himself through the suspect defence of Jarryd Hayne. Until he was seemingly concussed, Will Chambers was also critical in this regard, carrying the ball 15 times up the right edge for good metres.
That both of these players did their damage around Hayne’s edge was no surprise. It hardly took an astute tactician to notice that Hayne is not a regular defender at left centre.
Not only did Chambers and Gagai make easy metres here, but both second half tries for the Queenslanders were scored here. For both tries Hayne missed tackles that created the gap. The first came from a clean break from Josh McGuire that looked to be covered in numbers by the Blues. Then Hayne’s false strike on Chambers created an overlap, which resulted in a try to Gagai. Finally in the 77th minute a nonthreatening left-to-right movement ended with a desperate flick pass from Michael Morgan to Gagai, who stepped inside an over-committed Hayne to equal the scores.
Jonathon Thurston then calmly slotted the sideline conversion despite his injury and despite the moment. To show such fortitude in such a high-pressure situation that even Rudyard Kipling was impressed. Just another page in Thurston’s almost mythical story.
It’s hard to say that this series is now Queensland’s for the taking. New South Wales will dominate game three in the forwards again. One cannot see the Blues’ abdicating their game plan so profoundly again. Jonathon Thurston may not play in game three, and New South Wales can easily fix their problem at left centre by picking an actual left centre.
Ultimately, this shouldn’t be a consideration. New South Wales should have secured the shield tonight. If they manage to lose the series the Blues will rue this missed opportunity.