Once more the Queensland Maroons have shown the NSW Blues just what it takes to win an Origin match: game smarts and relentless effort.
In a very tight contest where both sides played some very good football, it was the Maroons on their home ground that found an extra gear when it mattered to overpower a Blues side that at times looked a little lost for ideas.
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While all is far from lost for the New South Welshmen, it is a long way back from here and you can be sure that coach Brad Fittler will be looking to change his squad for Game 2 on Sunday 23 June in Perth.
If Luke Keary is fit by then it is a safe bet that he’ll be in the NSW number six jersey.
Cody Walker failed to reprise his excellent club form, with no line breaks, line break or try assists, and only one tackle break. However, it was his communication with centre Latrell Mitchell that was the worst issue.
The Queenslanders constantly exploited the deficiencies in the Blues left side defence. Only desperate defence by Josh Addo-Carr, James Tedesco and one great chase by Payne Haas stopped the Queenslanders fully capitalising on it.
This also seemingly had the effect of putting Latrell Mitchell completely off his attacking game. The damaging centre just wasn’t able to impose himself on the game and the Blues attack was all the poorer for it.
Mitchell’s eight runs for 75 metres wasn’t enough. He needed to push Will Chambers around again and cause havoc on the Queensland right. It didn’t happen.
In fact the damage that NSW did inflict came on the right with old man Josh Morris looking more like 22 than his actual 32 years of age, crashing over for a try in the 20th minute.
As with so many Origin games, the first twenty minutes were a total arm wrestle. Everything we love about the annual interstate clash was on show: Brutal defence, fearless ball carrying, incredibly fast play and exciting breaks.
In the 17th minute the Maroons went 100 metres in a set only to be denied a try because of a huge Corey Oates hoof hitting the sideline.
It was the Blues through Morris who broke the deadlock though in the 20th minute, and by the 25th minute the stats showed the visitors were clearly in the ascendency. The possession was 55 per cent to 45 per cent against the Maroons, who had only had 10 sets to the Blues 16. On top of that Queensland had made 64 more tackles and missed 13 more than their opponents.
David Klemmer had already clocked up 100 running metres to be the dominant forward on the field, with James Tedesco causing panic and damage every time he had the ball.
However, Queensland kept coming at the Blues. Captain Daly Cherry-Evans put Dane Gagai away in the 26th minute and he was only just run down. Moments later only bad luck stopped Dylan Napa capitalising on a brilliant DCE kick to score.
In the 32nd minute Cameron Munster, who was superb in attack and defence all night, made a great break only to be caught by desperate NSW defence again.
Then in the 36th minute Ben Hunt laid on a great 40/20 which would have led to a Gagai try but for an Addo-Carr knock down.
The Blues led 8-0 at half time and looked good for their lead. It looked like they had their opponent’s measure, although all that really separated the sides was the Blues desperation in defence.
The interviews with Ponga and Tedesco as they came off the field for half time were almost incoherent due to the pace of the first 40 minutes. I could barely understand a single cliché that was uttered.
Whatever Kevin Walters said to his troops at half time did the trick. The Maroons came out in the second half with a defensive ferocity that stunned the Blues with its intensity and relentlessness.
That pressure turned to points in the 52nd minute with Corey Oates crossing in the corner and Kalyn Ponga converting from the sideline. When Latrell Mitchell rightly got sin binned in the 59th minute for taking out Matt Gillet without the ball – an action that could have seen a penalty try awarded – Ponga kicked the penalty goal to even the scores.
By this stage NSW had had only a third of second half possession. They were stuffed and disorganised.
Boyd Cordner was left to kick at the end of a set and Jack Wighton was charged down by Gillet. However, even a man down the New South Welshmen tried to cross the Maroons line.
Wighton skipped across the Queensland defenders and only had to draw Dane Gagai in order to put Addo-Carr over. However, Gagai saw it coming and intercepted Wighton’s pass to run 95 metres and put the Maroons in front for the first time.
The next time the Blues had the ball, James Tedesco – who was brilliant all night for NSW – dropped it on the first tackle. Moments later Gagai was in again after some brilliant lead up work from Cameron Munster.
When Jake Trbojevic scored in the 75th minute NSW were back in with a chance but the Maroons held firm to win Game 1 by four points.
Such a slim margin – but such a big omen.
Of the 34 series that have not been drawn, 26 of them (76.5 per cent) have been won by the side that has drawn first blood in the series.
So what went wrong for NSW?
As stated above, Cody Walker having little impact in attack and causing issues in defence was a big problem. The effect it had on Latrell Mitchell was debilitating.
Further, NSW only had six players who made 100+ metres with the ball to Queensland’s nine.
Captain Boyd Cordner made just 80 metres and missed seven tackles, finishing the game on the pine. I genuinely have no idea who was captain when he was off. It certainly wasn’t obvious.
While Klemmer was one of the best players on the field and he was well supported by Trbojevic, the rest of the Blues pack didn’t shine – with the exception of a few cameos by Damien Cook at dummy half.
The highly vaunted Blues bench of Wighton, Angus Crichton, Cameron Murray and Haas failed to have the huge impact that was predicted pre match.
Conversely, Joe Ofahengaue and David Fifita were far better than predicted off the Maroon pine.
NSW having only one effective play maker in Cleary versus the Queensland quadrate of DCE, Munster, Hunt and Morgan definitely showed in the result, with Maroon’s attack being far more dynamic, adaptive and structured throughout the night.
Of course, not everything was great for Queensland. Ben Hunt’s passing from dummy half was occasionally very wayward and could have been very costly. However, he made 53 tackles with a 90 per cent efficiency. That’s not too shabby.
What was defensively shabby was Dylan Napa. He made ten tackles and missed nine. Surely all that will keep him in the squad for Game 2 is Walters not wanting to change a winning side. I’d have Jarrod Wallace in there instead in a flash.
The real pressure for changes will be on Brad Fittler, with Walker and the bench players most likely under some heavy scrutiny.
In the end this game was won by Queensland for two reasons: they had more and better playmaking options and – as we’ve seen so many times before – they just wanted it more.
They always do.