They were given next to no chance of winning a game this series, but somehow, Queensland have once again earned bragging rights in the traditional interstate showdown.
This year’s Origin series was pushed back from its traditional mid-season slot to the end of the season, which itself was delayed, due to the impact of COVID-19 which saw fans banned from attending matches and nearly the whole world come to a standstill.
But at least we were able to get a series running this year, and after Kevin Walters was forced to relinquish the Queensland coaching role after accepting the top job at the Brisbane Broncos, the Maroons went back to the future and appointed Wayne Bennett as coach for this year only.
In his corner was Mal Meninga, the concept’s most successful coach who oversaw nine series wins in a decade in charge of the state between 2006 and 2015 inclusive, with his only series defeat coming in 2014.
But despite boasting two of Queensland Origin’s greatest coaches, the state was given next to no chance of winning back the shield, which New South Wales had in its keeping after winning the two previous series under Brad Fittler’s coaching.
Entering Game I at the Adelaide Oval, the Maroons blooded eight debutants to the Blues’ three, and despite trailing 10-0 at half-time, the northerners went on a rampage in the second half to win 18-14.
With the knowledge that the third (and potentially series-deciding) match was to be played at Suncorp Stadium, that put the Maroons in the box seat to claim the series for the twelfth time in 15 years.
But the Blues were quick to hit back in the next game, with a double from Josh Addo-Carr seeing the southerners take Game II by 34-10 to set up a decider in Brisbane.
Over twenty-four hours before kick-off in Brisbane, it was announced that Suncorp could operate at 100 percent capacity for the decider, such was Queensland’s successful efforts in fighting off the coronavirus, with no local cases having been recorded since early September.
This saw the potential for over 50,000 Queenslanders to pack the stadium, but in the end the attendance for the third and final game was just under that figure, though the Blues fans were not hopelessly outnumbered as was to have been expected.
With debutant Harry Grant and Melbourne Storm premiership-winning five-eighth Cameron Munster pulling the strings, the Maroons led from start to finish to win the third game 20-14, despite a late charge from the Blues.
The southerners copped a major blow when stand-in captain James Tedesco, who was one of their best in Game II, was accidentally kneed in the head by Maroons giant Josh Papalii midway through the first half, this seeing his night ended.
Tedesco had scored the Blues’ only first-half try after the Maroons knocked-on deep in defence, and his loss forced a reshuffle with Eels captain Clinton Gutherson now marshaling the backline.
At half-time, the Maroons led 12-6, but the series was still anyone’s to win.
With the home ground advantage, and with just under 50,000 locals behind them, the northerners got on with the job in the second half, and debutant Grant all but sealed the series when he scored with less than twenty minutes remaining.
But the Blues would not throw in the towel, and Daniel Tupou would peg back a try not long after to bring the scoreline back to 20-12. A penalty goal to Nathan Cleary, who was named the Blues’ best player of the series, reduced it to 20-14.
Brad Fittler’s side copped another blow when Cody Walker departed the game with five minutes remaining, at which point the match was still in the balance.
Not long after, Maroons debutant Corey Allan was sin-binned for a professional foul on Josh Addo-Carr, who was denied a penalty try which could have levelled the scores.
In the end, the side dubbed “the worst Queensland side ever” held on for dear life to ensure that the Blues’ Suncorp Stadium misery continued, the southerners having now not won a live series decider in the sunshine capital since 2005.
Captain Daly Cherry-Evans was happy to cop the criticism, saying to the pro-Maroon crowd during his post-match speech: “from the worst ever Queensland side, thank you very much”.
It was his first series win as captain, and the first time since 1998 that a Queensland skipper other than Darren Lockyer or Cameron Smith had led the state to an outright series win (though Gorden Tallis was the captain in the aforementioned drawn 2002 series).
For Wayne Bennett, it marked his first Origin series victory as a coach since 2001, though he also presided over the drawn series the following year, which saw the Maroons retain the shield by default.
The super coach will now return to Redfern for his final year as Rabbitohs coach before he hands the reins to Jason Demetriou at the end of next season, meaning he could conceivably lead the Maroons again in 2022, if he is up for the task.
In the meantime, the Origin champions will be out for a new coach, with Bennett and Kevin Walters both out of the running. Former Cowboys premiership-winning coach Paul Green, who vacated his post in Townsville earlier this year, is looming as one of the favourites.
South of the border, the post-mortem has begun into the Blues’ twelfth Origin series defeat in fifteen years, and Fittler’s first after taking over from Laurie Daley at the end of the 2017 series.
The 48-year-old has copped plenty of criticism for varying reasons, including naming four forwards on his bench for the decider – something which backfired when Tedesco, and later Cody Walker, suffered game-ending concussion injuries.
Another was not giving Clive Churchill Medallist Ryan Papenhuyzen what would’ve been a well-deserved Origin debut after he was named best-on-ground in the Storm’s Grand Final win over the Panthers last month.
You could also accuse the Blues of taking a relaxed approach into the rescheduled series, with many believing that all they had to do was to turn up and win.
But on the Origin arena, you just cannot do that. Dare I say it, complacency could have been a factor in Queensland losing the 2014 series, otherwise they would’ve won twelve consecutive series between 2006 and 2017 inclusive.
Still, that Maroons side six years ago outscored the Blues across the three matches – by 44-26.
This year, despite the series defeat, NSW outscored their northern counterparts by 62-48.
In the end, it was the Maroons’ determination to prove their critics wrong that was the catalyst in their 2020 Origin series victory, one which will forever go down in folklore and could even be as famous as any of the eight consecutive wins they enjoyed between 2006 and 2013.
It also proved that there is indeed life after some of the game’s greatest gladiators – namely Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith – five men who had tormented the southerners year in, year out, this century.
Cherry-Evans has now written his name into the Queensland record books as their latest series-winning captain, and while the Blues will be eager to wrest back the shield in 2021, the Manly skipper will want to ensure he joins elite company with another series win next year.
Regardless, the Maroons will hold the shield for only at least the next eight months, with the series expected to revert back to its traditional mid-season slot last year, after this year’s series was pushed back by five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To finish off, congratulations to Queensland, who have been the most consistent side of the past fifteen years even with their legends long gone, and commiserations to New South Wales, who will be expected to fight tooth and nail to take back the shield next year.
That also brings to an end what has been a rugby league year like no other, with the premiership awarded in the final Sunday of October rather than the first Sunday of the month, and a season break of two months when the worst of the coronavirus pandemic hit Australia.
In the coming weeks, the fixture for the 2021 NRL season will be released, and while it is expected that travel between New South Wales and Queensland will be unrestricted by then, whether the fly-in, fly-out model that was utilized this season will continue will remain to be seen.
But there is still some more rugby league to be played out this year, with Wigan and St Helens to contest the Super League Grand Final on Saturday morning (local time) behind closed doors at KCOM Stadium in Hull.