Origin is a special competition, from its unique nature fostered by a state duopoly on the NRL to the passion it ignites that is generally reserved for only the fiercest international sporting rivalries.
From a Queensland rugby league fan’s perspective, there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and Mitchell Pearce losing an origin decider.
Mitchell Pearce is a polarising figure when the discussion turns to State of Origin, and fans north of the border are feeling very confident with his selection for New South Wales, replacing an injured Nathan Cleary for this year’s Game 3 decider in Sydney.
The reason Queenslanders are confident is Pearce has lost every one of the six origin deciders he’s been involved in and has an overall record of just five wins from 18 Origins, statistics which wouldn’t have Blues fans brimming with confidence either.
Over the years some of the criticism directed at Pearce during Queensland’s Origin dynasty has been somewhat unfair given many of his Blues teammates escaped criticism for their own shortcomings at Origin level.
However, some of that criticism could be considered justified. He was accused of going missing when games were on the line and of being unable to manage and inspire the New South Wales side when they were under siege against the all-conquering Queenslanders.
Pearce made his Origin debut in a decider in 2008 as an inexperienced 19-year-old and later admitted he wished he never played Origin when he was so young.
State of Origin is a completely different beast compared to the NRL regular season, and we’ve seen many players selected when they were too young and not ready, leaving them mentally scarred. Cody Walker is an example from this year’s series, and although he’s not a young man in rugby league terms, in hindsight he was not ready for Origin.
Take Cody Walker’s Origin experience and how it must be affecting him and then multiply it exponentially to get an idea of what Pearce has had to endure over a decade-long representative career.
But times have changed for the Knights captain and New South Wales.
Pearce is arguably the best half in the NRL at the moment. His irresistible form in 2019 almost saw him selected for Game 1 ahead of Origin series-winning incumbent Nathan Cleary, only for injury to rule him out for the first two games.
After years of Origin failures, a suspension for a horrid off-field incident and being booted out of the Roosters in favour of Cooper Cronk, we are seeing a man who has put the dark days behind him. He’s matured into a great leader on and off the field and is in career-best form with Newcastle.
Pearce would know he’s the subplot story to next Wednesday’s decider and he’d also know he’ll be the most analysed and scrutinised player on the field.
One could only imagine the pressure he’s under to finally deliver for his state.
If he’s able to block out the mental demons and take a positive mindset leading into Game 3, he has an opportunity – perhaps his last – to right all the wrongs of his representative career and erase the decade-long torment at Origin level.
Pearce is now part of a squad who’d be feeling confident in with the belief they can make it two series wins in a row after mauling Queensland by 32 points in Game 2 in Perth. He’s playing alongside a resurgent five-eighth who he’s well familiar with, winning a premiership with James Maloney at the Roosters in 2013.
But perhaps most important is that for that first time in his Origin he’ll playing against a Queensland side no longer stacked with future immortals and hall of famers in the prime of their careers.
There’s the famous Johnathan Thurston sledge to Pearce in the Origin decider in 2015. New South Wales were being pummelled when Thurston suggested he take a picture of himself next to Wally – the statue of Wally Lewis raising the origin shield outside Suncorp Stadium – because that would be as close as he’ll ever get to the Origin shield.
The sledge is Origin folklore as far as Queensland is concerned; what would be Origin folklore for New South Wales would be an image of the much-maligned Mitchell Pearce finally holding the shield.