Queensland defeated New South Wales 22-6 in a surprisingly one-sided end to the 2017 State of Origin Series. The startlingly even contest in the forwards, and the brilliance of the Queensland spine were the deciding factors. Instead of being the start of a new era that many considered this game threatened to represent, game three ended up being a reminder of what has made Queensland great.
The surprise of the night was the failure of the Blues’ big boppers to dominate the game (outside of a brief period in the second half). Andrew Fifita (10 runs for 63 metres), Aaron Woods (9 for 80 metres) and Boyd Cordner were all well-controlled by the stifling Maroons defence. That Cordner ended with 149 metres almost seemed like a typo on the stats sheet – they felt more akin to 40, and he added several poor defensive errors, one of which resulted in Munster breaking through the line to find Valentine Holmes for his and Queensland’s third try. Perhaps Cordner hadn’t quite recovered from the injury that threatened to see him miss the game.
In the large part the Blues’ forwards were brought to a stalemate, particularly in the first half by the willingness and effort of the Queenslanders in the ruck. Call it wrestling or worse, the Maroons were successful in slowing the play-the-ball in the first half. Without speed in the ruck New South Wales found no space in which to operate, and no momentum to sets. Nor could they find offloads, with Queensland seemingly intent on ensuring that Fifita and Woods could find no way to get the ball away. Nathan Peats is not a creative dummy-half, and neither Pearce nor Maloney were capable of delivering behind a forward pack that wasn’t in the ascendency. It was a surprising end to a pack that had dominated 140 of the previous 160 minutes of footy, and it wasn’t until the second stanza that they began to find any semblance of momentum in sets.
For the Blues the blame will go on Mitchell Pearce, not because he is more ‘deserving’ but because he remains inexplicably the lightning-rod for all complaints from Blues fans. Pearce was not good in this game, but he was no worse than Maloney. Behind a forward pack that failed to dominate in the way it had done for much of this series, the Blues’ halves found it hard to find any space to show any creativity. Their only try came from a speculative Maloney kick.
It does demonstrate the difference between the two sides. In game two a similarly dominated forward pack didn’t stop Queensland from engineering a come-from-behind victory. Pearce and Maloney barely threatened to do similar in this game.
In the Maroons they faced a spine that utilised the familiarity of their club time together to good ends. Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk shielded rookie half Cameron Munster early, doing the majority of the organisational and creative work. This allowed Munster to ease his way into the game, and his increasing comfort was evident in the second half. Munster did all that was asked of him, making smart decisions as to when to run and pass – the former when he burst through a hole to set up the Maroon’s third try, the latter when he threw an excellent ball to make-shift centre Michael Morgan on the outside of Josh Dugan to set up the opening points of the game for Holmes.
Even the most one-eyed Blues fan would have to acknowledge that the play of Smith was simply another incredible moment in a career littered with them. Smith was simply dominant. He drove sets with his work around the ruck the game yo-yoing in his direction as if wrapped around his little finger. In an around the ruck he ran the ball more than he had in previous games, taking 105 metres on the ground (more than all but Cordner from the Blues’ starting pack). Queensland’s second try will be remembered for Cronk’s ridiculous kick to Holmes, but it should be also remembered for the masterclass of Smith working his side down the ground, creating a break by darting out of dummy-half and almost sending Josh Papalii through. Throughout the game he was creative with the ball, his deception around the ruck driving Maroon sets into the opposition half seemingly at will. He didn’t just do his work in the ruck. Smith often stood out at first and second receiver, providing the Maroons with more attacking options across the park.
Cronk too was outstanding. His kick for Holmes was the perfect execution of a near-impossible idea. His marshalling of his side around the park was outstanding. Even when presented with relatively poor field position he managed to turn the opposition around, kicking high to the corners to ensure hard starts for Blues’ sets.
Dane Gagai was a deserved man of the series – he was unfazed by anything that New South Wales threw at him in attack, defusing many attacking kicks from Pearce and Maloney. He came inside looking for work at every opportunity, which was particularly noteworthy in the second half when a period of New South Wales dominace in field position put the Queensland forwards under the pump for the only time in the game. More than once Gagai and his centre partner Will Chambers got Maroon sets moving by attacking the defence of Jarryd Hayne, who gave far too much space to the pair.
Yet another series goes the Queensland. Laurie Daley likely coached his last game for New South Wales, just as Jonathon Thurston, and perhaps Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk played their last for Queensland. Instead of being the start of a period of dominance for the Blues it was the last great moment of the greatest Origin dynasty.
Maybe next year will be the start of a new era.