Even the greatest of champions must fall.
A few smart ones know when it is time to walk away. However, many end their career being counted out on the canvas, having gone one fight – or season – too many.
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At half time in last night’s match it looked like the great Queensland side was on the ropes and staggering, as wave after blue wave of remorseless New South Welshmen constantly bent the Maroon line and had them desperately scrambling, often in vain.
The half time statistics told an inevitable tale of NSW triumph. The Sky Blues had made 23 more hit ups (that’s almost five extra sets), 100 more metres, missed ten fewer tackles, made 38 fewer tackles (that’s over seven sets), made three more line breaks and scored two more tries.
Even after Queensland dominated possession in the last ten minutes of the first half, New South Wales had still held the ball for three more minutes than the Maroons in the first half.
NSW were ten points in front. Their pack was playing devastating football.
For the champion Queensland core of Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston surely this was a series too far. Surely they were about to fall.
They must have been wishing that they’d hung up the boots in 2016 rather than pushing on for one more series of $30,000 paydays only to go out vanquished, their aura removed, their legacy eroded.
There was no Matt Scott, no Corey Parker and no Greg Inglis. The pack was being pushed around.
Tim Glasby – the highly criticised bolter selection – had been badly shown up. Missing two tackles that directly resulted in NSW tries. He may have been able to play great Bellamy Ball when dressed in purple, but dressed in Maroon he was being exposed.
From the NSW perspective we could now clearly see the absolute folly in selecting Paul Gallen and Robbie Farah series after series with their domination of the side and one dimensional play. With those old stalwarts gone the Blues were rejuvenated, electric and dangerous. Right?
Josh Jackson once more showed us just what a brilliant player he is. His defence and assertive runs were a stand out. David Klemmer ran the ball like a wild man for huge metres. James Tedesco’s runs from the back were always dangerous.
Jake Trbojevic showed he will be a fixture in this side for years to come and – though he’s at the opposite end of his career – Brett Morris positional play and defence was absolutely top class. James Maloney’s run to set up Morris’ try was superb.
It was followed quickly afterwards by a Tedesco break, from a Trbojevic pass that ended in a Mitchell Pearce try. After 28 minutes it was 16-6 and Queensland looked gone.
Game 3 would be a dead rubber. Smith, Cronk, Slater and Thurston would bow out of the Origin arena badly beaten.
Like Muhammad Ali must have thought when he realised that he’d pressed his luck one fight too far when he got in the ring with Larry Holmes in 1980, the Queensland champions must have been wishing that they’d hung up their boot in 2016 and gone out winners.
However, New South Wales never scored another point after the 28th minute and Queensland slowly started dragging themselves back into the game.
There was no questioning the effort the Queensland big four were putting in but the resurgence was led by Josh McGuire, Will Chambers (who was outstanding until getting KO’d in the 70th minute), Dane Gagai, and Dylan Napa.
As determined as Queensland were not to lose, New South Wales seemed equally determined not to win. Their rampaging drive to tear the Maroons apart began subsiding after the first ten minutes of the second half. They almost seemed content to sit on their lead.
Maloney and Pearce pretty much disappeared. Andrew Fifita, such a rampaging beast in SOO1, was easily contained by the Maroons.
There seemed to be no plan. 24-year-old Boyd Cordner seemed unable to step up as leader, take control and get his side to properly reengage. For all the superb cattle in sky blue jerseys there is no superb leadership. There probably hasn’t really been any since Andrew Johns retired well over a decade ago.
As the NSW leadership disappeared the stupid decisions and errors crept in. Dropped balls, silly penalties and finally loose defence. Wade Graham missed Josh McGuire who spun away from the defensive line and found himself in the clear.
While Maroon support came in the form of Will Chambers, the Blues players kept backpedalling and somehow Dane Gagai scored. When Thurston kicked the goal there was only four points the difference.
Surely the New South Wales team would not allow Queensland back into the match? Surely their generals would take control, right the ship and ensure a series victory.
Surely they would.
But they didn’t. I’m not even certain if Cordner, Maloney or Pearce were on the field after the 55th minute.
However, I certainly saw Smith, Cronk, Slater and Thurston. They were everywhere. Marshalling their troops, directing the play and trying desperately to stay off the canvas, to stay on their feet and somehow steal a win against the odds and stop their dynasty ending right there on the turf of ANZ Stadium.
While the NSW leadership went missing, I did see Wade Graham giving away penalties and missing tackles. And Jarryd Hayne – the hero of the 2014 series and scorer of a first half try – missed five tackles but, far worse than that, he gave away two penalties and made four errors.
Hayne went a long way to giving the Maroons the field position and the possession that they needed to get back into the game. A couple of those errors were dumb and a few of the misses bad.
The last of Hayne’s missed tackles was on Dane Gagai as he scored in the 76th minute to tie the game up.
And then, as if it had been scripted, it all came down to Johnathan Thurston. A man who probably should have hung up his Maroon jersey the season before. A man who, just 30 minutes earlier, had looked like he would bow out of State of Origin a loser, now had the chance to steal the game.
With the crowd aiming a thunderous cacophony of hatred towards him and his right arm hanging in pain from his clearly injured shoulder, Thurston lined up the conversion.
There is ice flowing in that man’s veins.
I can’t even hit a three wood off the tee or pee at the urinal if someone is watching. Yet with 80,000 people screaming for him to miss Thurston coolly slotted the ball over the black dot.
Born on Anzac Day, Thurston is very arguably the greatest Australian rugby league player of all time. In the forty years I’ve been avidly following rugby league only Wally Lewis can hold a candle to him.
However, his teammates Cam Smith and Billy Slater will be remembered as greats too. And so too may Cooper Cronk.
These four incredible ageing footballers, who have been so good for so long, once more managed to humiliate New South Wales by winning a game they had no right to. By doing it they have managed to take the series back to Brisbane for a deciding match in front of their adoring fans.
And maybe, just maybe, they can conjure up one last series victory and go out winners.
Age will weary us all and the years condemn. Even the greatest of champions must fall. But for these Queensland greats it was not this day.