New South Wales has drawn first blood in this year’s State of Origin series, with Brad Fittler’s baby Blues defeating a new-look Queensland Maroons side by 22-12.
In winning the first match, the Blues have the chance to wrap up the series at home, with Game II to be played at ANZ Stadium on June 24. It will be the first time since 2001 that an Origin match has been played on a Sunday.
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However, they will have to bury the demons of last year’s humiliating series loss to do so, after they had lost the series despite winning the opening game in Brisbane by 28-4 and leading by ten points in the second game at home before losing that game by 18-16.
It was that series defeat which saw coach Laurie Daley sacked in favour of Fittler, who played 31 Origins for the state between 1990 and 2004, after he had overseen four series defeats in his five years in charge of the state.
The former Sydney Roosters captain and coach’s decision to blood eleven debutants paid off handsomely, with three of them (Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr) scoring a try each in the second half to turn a narrow 8-6 half-time lead into a convincing 22-12 victory.
Earlier, James Tedesco scored the first try of the series after over 20 minutes of play, before the Maroons hit back through an intercept length-of-the-field try to Valentine Holmes shortly after to peg the margin to 8-6 at half-time.
Dane Gagai then scored following the resumption as the Maroons took a 12-8 lead, but that would be their last score for the night as the Blues scored the final three tries to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
The win saw Fittler emulate the likes of Laurie Daley, Craig Bellamy and Graham Murray in winning their first matches as coach of the Blues in 2013, 2008 and 2006 respectively.
But it will now remain to be seen whether the honeymoon will continue for Fittler, a man who knows New South Wales inside and out, after those three coaches eventually lost their first series as coaches of the state.
He will be looking to become the first rookie NSW coach since Ricky Stuart in 2005 to win his first series, which he has the chance to do in just over two weeks from now with Game II to be played at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
If the Blues can wrap up the series in front of their home fans on June 24, then they will head to Suncorp Stadium on July 11 with the chance to complete their first clean sweep since 2000.
Doing that would be the dream start to Fittler’s Origin coaching career, following a modest stint as coach of the Roosters between mid-2007 and 2009.
As for the Maroons, who were without Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith for the first time since Game II, 2003, it’s back to the drawing board as they attempt to salvage the series behind enemy lines later this month.
Of the quartet, only Slater was available for selection this year, though he has announced his intentions to retire from all representative football at the end of this series.
He ended up not playing due to a hamstring injury sustained during training, but it shouldn’t be serious enough to deny him a farewell game at Suncorp on July 11, which the Maroons will be motivated to win should they tie the series with victory at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
His return can’t come quite soon enough for Kevin Walter’s men, who apart from some good patches either side of half-time were well and truly outplayed by the younger and more determined Blues outfit.
Greg Inglis, in his first game as state captain, said that while some minor errors cost them in the end, he could not fault the efforts of his players.
With Game I now in the books, attention turns to Game II in 17 days time where the Blues will have the chance to wrap up the series on their home soil, while the Maroons will have to pick themselves up if they are to salvage the series and have any chance of winning their twelfth series in thirteen years.