January is not usually a time for rugby league teams to join, rejoin or quit competitions – or for State of Origin sides to go into camp.
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With the State of Origin series in their pocket and a sunny outlook on life, the Blues head to Queensland saying all the right things about achieving their first 3-0 whitewash since the turn of the century.
Five-eighth James Maloney has been his usual, cheeky self, questioning the dedication of the Queensland fans when asked about ticket sales.
Coach Brad Fittler took some (reasonably playful) digs at the timing of Cameron Smith’s retirement and at the Maroons set up in general after their barren year across all representative sides.
Life is good in a winning camp, and why wouldn’t it be.
New South Wales have had somewhat of a charmed run in 2018. To win an Origin series a lot needs to go your way – especially when you decide to play 12 rookies (tonight Tariq Sims makes 13) against a battle-hardened opponent. This year, the mystical ‘rub of the green’ has been in the Blues’ favour.
So the easy path to tread is to cast doubt on the results putting the series down to refereeing, injuries and retirements. As expected, that path has seen a lot of traffic.
But good fortune always seems to accompany hard work and strong will.
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Fittler has been more than happy for the coverage of his team to focus on the yoga, the corridor sit-downs, the walks to the stadiums, the meditating. He likes people to think he sends his team out there without a care in the world and a song in their heart, and there are a lot of people out there who want to believe that too.
But this belies the work Fittler, Greg Alexander and team have done to cultivate a team ethos. It has been mentioned more than once that NSW feel they are stronger than ever as a unit with a purpose.
At least two players have noted in interviews that images like those seen in 2014 are relics of the past (picture Jarryd Hayne, arms out wide, basking in the adoration of the crowd), replaced by a philosophy of the team over the individual. They are careful not to mention Hayne by name, but the scene they describe is that shot, almost to a pixel.
With a team of such precocious individual talent, it’s a credit to the team setup that they’ve created an environment which allows players like Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell to express themselves but remain focused on the singular goal.
The Blues have shown grit, application and game smarts when it matters and that’s why they will rightly claim the shield. They’ve fought hard to wrestle control back after being outplayed, they’ve hung in as Queensland’s forwards pounded away at their line and they’ve cashed in on their opportunities to score.
They’ve stared defeat in the face twice, then won the key moments to drag themselves over the line.
But if Fittler’s rookies thought they’d learnt what State of Origin is all about, here comes their biggest lesson.
Game 1 in Melbourne was played to a massive crowd of 87,422, split between people from the north, the south, and a huge number of theatregoers. Noisy, sure. But not a ‘true’ Origin crowd.
Then came standalone Sunday in front of 82,223 adoring home fans, where NSW clinched the series with a game to spare (apparently this game was a failure because of TV ratings, – only in rugby league would you find people arguing that 3.1 million viewers watching your product was bad news).
Tonight, 50,000 or so Queensland faithful will turn out expecting their team to uphold the pride of the state. They won’t care that it’s just the fifth time since 2006 that Game 3 isn’t ‘live’. As far as Queensland are concerned, every Origin game is ‘live’.
It’s going to be a cauldron of hate and a wall of sound that these players will not have experienced. Facing the Broncos on a Friday night is one thing, playing a finals match is another. Playing an Origin match in front of already annoyed Maroon fans who want to send Billy Slater, one of their favourite sons, off in the right way? That’s a whole new ballgame.
Fittler knows what’s coming, he experienced it as a player. That’s why he’s not walking his team to the ground tonight. Maloney, David Klemmer and Boyd Cordner know what’s coming. But all the sagelike advice and encouraging words in the world won’t stop the adrenalin and the pressure.
The Blues took Game 1 handsomely in Brisbane last year, but just five members of that winning team run out tonight.
Queensland are stinging at losing the series and they know they’ve played well enough to be at least 1-1.
Kevin Walters is under pressure to show his team can win, and that he’s made the right selection moves in recalling halfback Daly Cherry-Evans and a starting front row of Josh Papalii and Jai Arrow.
Some outlets have been running the game down because it’s a dead rubber and we’re starting to see signs the old ‘Origin is stale’ tropes are on the way back.
I couldn’t disagree more. This series has been engrossing, taut and – like all good Origins – played right to the last minute. There’s new blood in both camps and quality players coming down the pipeline.
Regardless of what happens tonight, the rivalry has reset. I can’t wait to see where it takes us.