State of Origin is in the bank for season 2021 and New South Wales retain the shield, though they dropped a tight game three on the Gold Coast. Brad Fittler’s team were faster, fitter and more committed when it mattered, and the future looks bright for the men in blue. Here are your talking points from State of Origin series 2021.
Sweeping a State of Origin series is really, really hard
Queensland were friendless with tipsters for game three after two complete hidings and a 76-6 points differential. But their game three effort showed that when it comes down to it, pride can will a team over the line when you’re facing a 3-0 whitewash.
These are the best players in the game and there’s reason why there has only been seven 3-0 results in 40 odd years. Maintaining the rage is hard, and as we saw in game three, Queensland weren’t going to go down without a fight for the third game in a row.
The Blues were slightly off their game with the series in the bag, and Queensland lifted. Not that Maroon fans should be celebrating too hard, because James Tedesco was still the captain raising the shield aloft at the end of the game.
More Origin 3
» REACTION: Now that’s a game! Queensland avoid clean sweep
» PLAYER OF THE SERIES: Who won the Wally Lewis Medal?
» STRANGE DECISION TO KICK?: NSW tactics questioned
» AS IT HAPPENED: Game 3 scores, highlights, result and blog
Queensland planned for ‘old school Origin’ and it showed
For better or worse, rugby league in 2021 is a faster game where possession is usually rewarded with points. Origin games are traditionally a slow and low grind, but 2021 was different.
This might be due to the speed with which the Blues went about their business, but Queensland showed up for a grind, found themselves in a sprint race and couldn’t adapt quickly enough. Fittler let his side rip and Brian To’o, Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic obliged.
The Maroons adapted and applied themselves better in defence during game three, shown by Brad Fittler’s comment during the game that the Blues were struggling to avoid getting drawn into the grind. But for the Maroons, it was too little too late.
Wayne Bennett taught Brad Fittler a big lesson
Brad Fittler’s 2019 New South Wales Origin win was supposed to be the dam breaker, unleashing a flood of New South Wales wins that would dwarf Queensland’s 11 out of 12 series wins between 2006 to 2017.
But Bennett the master coach gave Fittler and co. a huge reality check last year when they took a team dubbed the ‘worst Queensland side of all time’ to the series win. It sat Fittler on his backside and caused some deeper thinking.
“We looked at our team and thought ‘we should win’, Fittler has said about the 2020 series. “But we learnt early if you don’t keep coming together as one, then it’s pretty hard to win it individually.”
“I think a big thing we took from (that series) into this year is connecting as a team and working for each other, and it showed in the first two games.”
Fittler wanted this series badly. And that meant his team wanted it badly too. When New South Wales turned it on, Queensland couldn’t go with them. But game three did give them a reminder that they may not get things all their way in the future.
Paul Green = Craig Bellamy?
Coaching a team to a premiership is a tremendous achievement in rugby league. It’s bloody hard and deserves all the due credit and regard.
But it’s not like coaching State of Origin.
Spending months formulating, planning and tasking a squad you’re intimately familiar with is a completely different beast to bringing the state’s best players, and their idiosyncrasies and personalities, together for a week and a half and try to impart your influence on them. You have a small time to make a big impression.
Wayne Bennett could do it, Mal Meninga could do it. Even Paul Vautin could do it. These were coaches who dealt with the player and the attitude rather than the tactics, and they were bloody good at it.
Paul Green might well be good at man management, but this series he’s found himself in the same position as arguably the greatest coach of modern times, Craig Bellamy. Bellamy’s New South Wales teams of 2008-10 ran into some of the best Queensland players of all time, winning just two games from nine. Green’s team may well face a similar problem.
Green talked his team down before the series, didn’t show much flexibility to try and salvage things on the field and made baffling selection decisions like playing AJ Brimson at hooker in game one and only giving him 16 minutes. His press conference walkout before game three was not great.
The rumour mill has Queensland legend and future immortal Billy Slater positioned to take over from Green. If Fittler can relaunch the Blues team, could a fresher approach like Slater’s work too?
State of Origin still draws the eyeballs
Rugby league’s midyear showpiece has long been the jewel in the Australian TV sporting crown, pulling in huge ratings regardless of whether a game is a dead rubber or not.
It’s true Origin’s ratings numbers have steadily declined over the last few years, but so has everything on free-to-air television. The big ‘event’ shows aren’t rating like they used to because people have more options across any number of streaming services, where they’ll often watch the shows they’d usually watch on TV at a more convenient time.
It’s taking some time for the media to catch up to this, because contemporary reporting of TV ratings still makes comparisons to very different times.
Game one and two of this series rated national peak audiences of 3.1 million and 2.9 million, substantially up on last year’s stand alone series games and staying relatively consistent even though the scores were blowouts. Hundreds of thousands more watched online.
Origin game one, a 50-6 scoreline, is currently the highest rating program on Australia television in 2021 and will remain so until the Olympics you would imagine.
Game three’s rating are due out later on Thursday. So don’t listen to the doomsayers, Origin is still well and truly the games people watch.
Kalyn Ponga made a huge difference
Ponga aggravated a groin injury in camp before game one, which ruled him out of Queensland’s first two games and it had a huge effect on their attack.
We saw his influence on the contest in game three – strong running metres, dangerous with ball in hand and also aware in defence to break up more than a few New South Wales attacking moves. His knockdown of a Tom Trbojevic pass in the 73rd minute saved the game – it was headed for James Tedesco who would have been in under the posts untouched.
He’s a polarising figure for some, Kalyn Ponga. Many marvel at his talent and ability to make things happen on the field, just as many don’t understand what all the fuss is about.
Game three showed how good he can be. Hopefully he stays fit and is able to do the same for Newcastle.
Would he have made things different if he was available earlier? Maybe not, but you never know…
Amidst the wreckage, there’s some green shoots for Queensland
For Paul Green’s issues this series, you can’t deny his side was hamstrung by injuries at the worst time. Five-eighth Cam Munster was clearly dinged up. Harry Grant shouldn’t have played game one and missed the next two. Their game breaker Ponga wasn’t seen until game three. Josh Papalii was suspended for game one.
But there were some good signs from the Maroons in the form of prop Moeaki Fotuaika, who was immense in all three games. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow brought a bit of spark and better defensive awareness in the centres in game three as well. Using AJ Brimson properly and playing Kurt Capewell in the forwards rather than the centres is also helpful to the cause.
Individually, these players might not set the world on fire but combined with a fit Munster, DCE, Grant and Ponga and forwards like Papalii and Christian Welch, there’s the skeleton of a decent State of Origin side. Whether it’s enough to challenge this New South Wales mob is the question.
The Maroons had moments during the series. But you don’t win a State of Origin series by piecing together one decent game out of three.
What did you notice from this year’s Origin series? Is this New South Wales side about to settle in for years of dominance?