The Blues and Maroons have put the first chapter of the 2020 State of Origin series behind them, with Queensland winning a topsy-turvy series opener in Adelaide. Here are my talking points from the first November Origin in history.
Queensland are partying like it’s 1995
The Maroons weren’t supposed to have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this Origin series if you listened to the popular script.
But footy isn’t played on paper. And Origin games certainly aren’t.
Origin games are played with heart, spirit and passion, and Queensland, after battling their way through a scrappy first half, have come away with a superb victory which rivals their successes in 1995… if they can keep it going throughout the rest of the series.
Game 2 in Sydney will be a struggle as the Blues look at making some very necessary adjustments (more on that soon), but the Queenslanders have a win which gives them two shots at completing one of the most famous upsets in Origin history.
While the players deserve a mountain of credit for the work they did in staying patient and coming back throughout the second half before having the nerve to close out the game, Wayne Bennett should receive his fair share of applause too.
The master coach put in a monumental effort at halftime to inspire his players and turn the game around, the men in Maroon playing a completely different style during the second half. New South Wales were unable to contend with the switch, and while they will no doubt adjust in Games 2 and 3, getting a team back on track after a poor first half takes a huge coaching performance.
Bennett did it again and, given he has only been in charge of the Queensland set-up for three weeks, it makes the achievement of this written-off team all the more special.
The Blues can’t afford to start like that again
The first 15 minutes of the series opener were all Queensland. The Blues gave away penalties, dropped the ball and spent all the opening exchanges of the game camped on their own line.
Yet Queensland failed to score. It wasn’t through lack of trying, but there was a severe lack of execution which you can’t bet on happening again.
Daniel Saifiti’s two offside penalties in a matter of tackles, in particular, were a blight on the Blues, as was the knock-on from Damien Cook five metres out from his line.
Those mistakes were just the tip of the iceberg for the Blues, who started abysmally.
And while the Blues did put some points on once they got the ball and a bit of momentum, it’s something they must work on heading into the remaining games of the series. There is almost no chance the Maroons will play with a similar lack of continuity moving forward.
The one solution staring the Blues in the face would be to move Payne Haas into the starting side. He provides something else with both his running and tackling game, and while Daniel Saifiti did a decent job outside of his penalties, Haas is certainly an upgrade.
Regardless of their selections, if the Blues want to make it three Origin series wins on the hop, they can’t be starting as they did in the Adelaide opener.
Dane Gagai goes Origin mode again
Has there ever been another player who struggles for the whole NRL season but then suddenly looks the best player on the planet once he slips on an Origin jersey?
Gagai has done it the last couple of years and was at it again in Game 1.
He had a try assist, played a hand in others, ran the ball for close to 150 meters and was absolutely superb in defence.
The South Sydney outside back was the first winger to win player of the series in Origin history a couple of years ago, and is now one of the more experienced members in a Queensland side who have plenty of youngsters.
Gagai seems to flick a switch whenever donning the Maroons jersey, and their victory was due in no small part to his efforts.
Ben Hunt is crucial to Queensland
Considering they had an in-form hooker and fullback joining an incumbent halves pairing, the Maroons’ attacking effort was poor during the first half.
Possibly the biggest problem was the lack of impact from their creative running genius, Cameron Munster. In the first 40, he virtually didn’t feature in the game, even though the Maroons had all the ball during the first quarter of an hour.
Even after that, they were in the game enough to run on tries. When they finally did score, it came off a long-range play and a follow-up kick.
But then, Ben Hunt got involved and after what was undoubtedly a rousing halftime speech from Wayne Bennett, and the Maroons got going.
Hunt’s running game opened up space for both Daly Cherry-Evans and the outside backs on either side of the park as the Maroons ran on 18 unanswered points.
While Hunt’s club form at the Dragons was less than impressive, he has a huge role to play for the Maroons off the bench and any questions over his selection for the remainder of the series have been squashed.
The Blues should play actual centres
The Blues need to sort out their centre pairing.
Jack Wighton might add plenty with his attacking game, but he was defensively average in the series opener. Clint Gutherson’s blemishes were noticeable as well, as he made an awful tackle attempt in the lead-up to Queensland’s first try.
Of course, the Blues’ only problem wasn’t on the edges. Their spine looked disjointed at best, and the discipline was lacking.
But with natural centres Zac Lomax and Stephen Crichton both sitting in the squad, there could be a change, or potentially two, in the number three and four jumpers for the next leg of the series in Sydney.
By full-time, Wighton had missed as many tackles as he had made (no, seriously) and Gutherson made his fair share of errors too. In saying that, Gutherson probably saves his spot with a pair of try assists, including a late one which gave the Blues a late shot at the win.
They both deserved their spots in Origin 1 having finished at the top of the Dally M leaderboard, but the experiment simply hasn’t worked. With the Blues now in a must-win situation for both Games 2 and 3, they can’t afford to take any more chances on players who aren’t naturals in their positions.
AJ Brimson belongs at this level
Valentine Holmes will be back for Game 2, but Queensland are mad if his spot isn’t on the wing.
That’s because, even if it was Kalyn Ponga returning to the side, AJ Brimson belongs in the Maroons’ fullback jersey.
He was exceptional on his Origin debut, safe in defence and strong running the ball. He made almosy 200 metres and barely put a foot wrong with or without the ball.
In short, he carried his club form into Origin.
When he was sitting on the sideline during the first half of the year, the Titans barely averaged 12 points a game and looked more likely to pick up the spoon than get near the finals.
Once Brimson returned, their average points per game increased by almost 50 per cent, and a lot of it was down to the little fullback.
He had the same impact on the Queensland team, scoring a try and proving dangerous for the Blues’ defensive line all night. We should see plenty more of him at this level.