State of Origin II: Three reasons why the Blues should celebrate softly
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NSW fans cheer for their team
The opening 20 minutes of State of Origin II was brutal. It’s often said that Origin football is the toughest rugby league on the planet, and the first quarter of last night’s match provided plenty of evidence to support that line of thinking.
Defence dominated the opening stages of the match, as both sides looked to assert control over the initial stages of the contest by bashing the other one into submission. Both teams put their bodies on the line, and the tackling and hits were thunderous.
Then, as the game settled ever so slightly, a familiar recent pattern emerged: the Blues threw everything they had at the Maroons, yet Queensland refused to lie down and surrender.
While New South Wales eventually held on for the win, they should only be cautiously optimistic about game III.
Let’s analyse why.
The Blues were lucky
New South Wales deserved to win last night. Even the most ardent Queensland supporter would admit that. Yet, by the same token, they were extremely lucky to come away from the match as the victors.
Despite dominating the game, with five minutes to play and Queensland trailing by four points, the entire eastern seaboard of Australia expected the Maroons to score and win the match. We’ve seen the same ending time and time again.
The Blues held on, but not before giving the Maroons every chance to steal the game.
Poor tactical kicking. Rookie errors in defence. Failing to capitalise on scoring opportunities. A soft try just before halftime. Akuila Uate looking completely lost in defence. All of the above allowed Queensland a sniff of victory right up until the final siren.
The Blues flirted with danger and heart break, but not just through bad play. They also tippy-toed the fine line between great play and good fortune.
Josh Morris swooped on a loose ball and scored a try after Jarryd Hayne got his foot to a ball that Johnathan Thurston had stripped. Likewise, Michael Jennings was in the right place at the right time to get his hand in the way of certain Brent Tate try.
The Blues had plenty of good fortune, and were also far and away the better side, yet could still only manage a winning margin of an unconverted try.
That should ensure the Blues keep their feet grounded.
Mitchell Pearce hasn’t silenced any doubters
Mitchell Pearce receives a lot of unfair criticism, and I staunchly defended his performance in game I when I thought he was very solid.
However, I’m starting to understand where the Pearce detractors are coming from.
It may seem a bit harsh to single out the halfback of the winning side, but Pearce’s performance was scratchy last night.
My biggest criticism of Pearce is that he lacks dynamism in attack.
On the fifth tackle, he doesn’t surprise the defence. It seems like the bomb is his only weapon. Game I may have given the false impression that towering kicks are an acceptable attacking strategy, but Billy Slater was never going to have two poor games in a row.
While Slater was still below his best last night, and his knee injury diminished his impact on the game, he still defused Pearce’s bombs with ease.
Pearce needs to have more options up his sleeve. Cross field kicks. Grubbers. Chips. Banana kicks. Running the ball. Anything that keeps the opposition in two minds, because hesitancy in defence can lead to mistakes. Just ask Akuila Uate.
Pearce is no doubt solid, and a great foil for the unpredictability of Todd Carney and Robbie Farah. But in that case, perhaps the Blues could use their hooker and five-eighth more on the fifth tackle. Both Carney and Farah have plenty of skill, and more importantly, plenty of options with the ball in hand.
Yet it’s not just Pearce’s lack of attacking options, it’s his lack of precision with tactical kicking. I lost count of the amount of times he kicked the ball straight down a Queenslander’s throat in general play.
There is no danger of Pearce being dropped, and his defence was absolutely brilliant. However it’s simply fact that the Blues would be better served with the ball in someone else’s hands on the fifth tackle.
That’s not really a great thing to be saying about your starting halfback.
The real Queensland haven’t turned up yet
The Maroons will take a lot of heart from the fact they are yet to play well in the series, yet head home to Suncorp Stadium knowing a win in front of their home crowd will secure them a seventh consecutive series win.
The Maroons were sluggish in game I, yet earned a reprieve because many of the players were allegedly suffering from the flu. More importantly, they received a reprieve because they won the game. Winning cures many ills.
Apart from the weather, of which both sides had to contend with, there was no excuse for another poor performance last night. Yet that’s exactly what Queensland produced.
They certainly had to deal with their fair share of injuries, with Billy Slater, Justin Hodges, Corey Parker and Brent Tate, among others, suffering an assortment of ailments that kept them well below their best.
However, Johnathan Thurston probably played his worst game in a Maroons jersey, the vaunted backline was completely held in check, the completion set of the entire team was sub-par, and the handling errors were atrocious.
Considering how badly Queensland have played, yet they still won game I, and could have easily won game II, the Blues should be wary that the sleeping giant will awaken in Brisbane.
Overall, the Blues should enjoy last night’s victory. They earned it. But they should also remember that the job is far from done, and their biggest challenge still remains.
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.