It’s been a couple of days since one of New South Wales’ darkest days came to an earth-shuddering end.
Indeed, Wednesday night represents one of the biggest disappointments in the history of New South Wales rugby league.
Before the 2020 Origin series began, all the question marks were over two things: the Blues by how many and which superstars would they leave out?
Would it be Cody Walker or Luke Keary at six? Would the Clive Churchill Medal winner Ryan Papenhuyzen get a gig? What about the form centre in the competition Stephen Crichton? Nah, give his jumper to the Dally M winner.
In the end, Wayne Bennett had the last laugh. Daly Cherry-Evans, one of the most maligned players in history, summed it all up pretty well with his post-match victory speech when he thanked the crowd and those watching at home on behalf of “the worst Queensland side in history”. The sad part is he wasn’t joking.
As good as each of the 27 players picked in this year’s Queensland squad are, Maroons teams of at least the past 20 years have simply been better. That’s why this year was supposed to be a cake walk for NSW.
But it wasn’t, and the spirit of Queensland – mixed with a dash of Cameron Munster brilliance and a healthy dose of full capacity Lang Park – is to blame.
In saying that, the Blues will live to rue a huge missed opportunity in Game 1. After going 10-0 up, they should have gone on with it. Whether it was complacency, fatigue or disrespect, who knows, but Queensland managed to sneak up from under them and steal the game (and the series) like a thief in the night.
The fact Bennett sat laughing in the sheds after his side were demolished in Game 2 shows that he knew he had the series in the bag. NSW were simply powerless to stop it.
But it cannot go on like this. There is too much pride in the NSW jumper, and too much talent at their disposal, to allow Suncorp Stadium to continue to be a cauldron or a graveyard or whatever people north of the border want to call it.
Players in blue cannot continue to let the demons of the past – namely the Queensland golden era between 2006 and 2017 – to live rent free in their heads. This is a new era and the power must shift their way.
Failure to do so will result in Origin officially being a Queensland thing. That just can’t happen.
While NSW cannot blame injuries or absentees for this year’s series loss, there are four players who must play, or at least be considered next year.
1. Tom Trbojevic
This doesn’t need to be elaborated on. The Manly fullback is in the top three or four players in the game when fully fit. He has killed it in Origin on the wing and at centre.
2. Ryan Papenhuyzen
Brad Fittler has been enormous for NSW since taking the reigns before the 2018 series. The decision not to play Papenhuyzen on the bench in Brisbane, however, is his biggest error to date.
And no, hindsight is not a wonderful thing. The fact Cameron Munster went down in the first two minutes in Sydney should have been reason enough to play a back or utility from the bench in Game 3. Further, whether James Tedesco went off injured or not, Papenhuyzen would have made a huge difference in those final stages when the Blues were chasing the game. You don’t win a Clive Churchill Medal if you’re a mug.
During Queensland’s era of utter dominance, they always had a gun half or back on the bench. In the early days it was a Matty Bowen or Karmichael Hunt. Then it became a certain Cooper Cronk and then Cherry-Evans and then Michael Morgan.
Provided Tedesco is fit next year, Papenhuyzen must play off the bench.
3. Cameron Murray
How the Blues missed you. The moment the Bunnies’ weapon went down in Game 1 may, in hindsight, be one of the biggest moments of the series.
He is the prototype Origin bench forward, being able to play on the edge or through the middle with ease. Above all else, though, he possesses an incredible mix of leg speed, upper body strength and footy nous, which gives his side a huge point of difference in attack. He doesn’t miss many tackles either.
Murray must walk back into the side next year.
4. Hudson Young
This is a good, old-fashioned bolter, but I’ve seen enough of the Canberra firebrand to know that he is an Origin player. Young has removed the cheap stuff from his game and replaced it with unabashed effort and ability.
His form towards the back end of 2020 – when he started scoring tries for fun – would no doubt have had the Blues’ brains trust sit up and take notice. In addition to his ability, he still has that rough-and-tumble element to his game. He wouldn’t take a backward step when the Queensland pack came looking for him.
This is something that was seriously lacking in Brisbane, especially after Jai Arrow inexplicably picked up and dumped an unconscious Tedesco after losing the ball.
Where Young fits into the team is the big question mark, but given how one-dimensional the Blues looked in Game 3, he wouldn’t be out of place starting on an edge or at least coming from the bench.
These are the other changes I would make.
1. Jack Wighton to six
Cody Walker is a brilliant player, but Wighton has all the attributes to be the perfect Origin number six. And he is not a centre so his talents are wasted when named there.
2. Latrell Mitchell to return
Centre is a position NSW have an embarrassment of riches in, and Stephen Crichton and Kotoni Staggs in particular are ready for the Origin arena (although Staggs will struggle to be fit in time for next year’s series after suffering an ACL injury in September).
Despite that, Latrell Mitchell is an absolute superstar who was pivotal to the Blues winning the 2018 series. Although he plays fullback for the Bunnies, he’s the best centre in the game when he plays there.
With these changes, NSW will give themselves every chance of regaining the shield next year – particularly as the decider should be in Sydney.
In saying that, Queensland might just do a Queensland and have us fighting among ourselves all over again.