How many passes does a rugby league halfback throw in their career? Thousands. Long ones and short ones, quick bullets and looping floaters, cut-outs to wide runners and pop-ups to charging forwards. Passing is a halfback’s trade.
So it’s amazing how for some, everything can come down to one pass. In one brief, blinding moment, a half’s whole career becomes a question of throwing a ball just once. Like a rugby league adaptation of Kipling: if you can risk it all on one ball’s toss…
Mitchell Pearce was in no position to risk anything. It would’ve been hard to blame him if he’d turned down the offer to play in Game 3 in the first place. Origin has burned him like it has burned few others. Not all the criticism thrown his way has been unfair, but all of it hurt, and in a world full of hurt, who needs to invite more in of his own accord?
But answer the call he did, and invite the hurt he did, and with a bare half-minute on the clock, and the script of the match clearly reading “fade out on wildly celebrating Queensland players after golden-point victory”, Pearce found himself holding the ball, and with a choice to make.
It wasn’t a difficult choice. The game was nearly over. New South Wales had let the lead slip, but extra time was looming and the side simply had to knuckle down, reset, and try to hold back Queensland’s momentum long enough to sneak a shot at a field goal themselves.
The path forward was obvious. Take a run, or hand the ball off to a forward to hit it up. Keep that ball secure, and we’d try to salvage the series in sudden-death.
We cannot know what goes through a player’s head at such a time. We cannot know if six losing deciders flash before his eyes. We cannot know if he thinks about the past, and the hurt. We cannot know if he’s thinking about redemption, or survival, or if he’s thinking about nothing at all.
Perhaps, after nearly eighty minutes of running and passing and tackling and straining every sinew, in a state of exhaustion, Mitchell Pearce was operating purely on muscle memory, the instincts honed from a lifetime running around paddocks and throwing around Steedens.
All we know is he didn’t make the easy choice. He made the mad choice. He made the choice that nobody expected, because everyone was wound so tight, so caught up in the gut-churning tension of the match, that they didn’t see what he saw.
Rugby league, like all football codes, is all about space, and the discovery or creation of it. A halfback’s greatest responsibility is to identify space when it appears, and get the ball into it.
Mitchell Pearce saw space. The game was nearly over, golden point was roaring down upon the Blues like a train on a damsel bound to the tracks, all were resigned to a cutthroat one-pointer shootout. But Mitchell Pearce saw space, and the man with the most to lose, the man who more than anyone else was in no position to take a risk, thought to himself, “what the hell”.
And he threw a pass. Of all the thousands he’s thrown and will throw in his life, he threw the pass.
It wasn’t a dazzling pass. It didn’t cut through the air like a missile, but arced lazily into the night sky like an empty thrown out the window of a ute. It sailed inelegantly out to the right edge, and landed in the hands of that long-limbed human Rolls Royce, Turbo Tommy Trbojevic.
And Tommy ran. And he flipped the ball to Blake Ferguson. And Fergo skipped out of the reach of diving hands, and tiptoed perilously close to the sideline. And he hurled the ball infield to the champion of champions, James Tedesco. And Tedesco propped, and dodged, and hurtled for the corner. And he got there.
And Sydney erupted. A Blue victory to set beside all the Maroons ones, those ones when they seemed down and out and somehow summoned a miracle at the bell. A triumph for every man in blue, and for their beloved coach Freddy. And a series win: the first for the man in number seven.
He wasn’t the best player on the field. He wasn’t a superstar.
But he threw a pass. And sometimes it only takes one pass to make all the hurt go away.