Returning Maroon Kayln Ponga was hailed by friend and foe as the big difference in Queensland’s stirring effort to avoid a first clean sweep defeat in 21 years against New South Wales.
The Newcastle Knights ace, who has been heavily linked to a 2023 code switch in order to play for the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup, was integral to the Maroons’ decisive try, then came up with a huge play at the death to deprive player of the series Tom Trbojevic from sealing a 3-0 win.
Blues legend Andrew Johns said Ponga was “an out and out superstar” after Queensland held on for a 20-18 win.
“I pray to whoever that not only does he stay at the Knights but that he stays in rugby league,” said Johns. “This is a once in a generation, once in a 40 year, footy player.
“Tom Trbojevic goes through in the end there and it’s a three on one. NSW score and it’s a clean sweep. He goes for an out and out gamble and somehow knocks the ball down and wins the game for the Maroons.
“He’s had a groin injury, hardly played in two months. There are only a small number of players in the world who even think of doing this.”
Ponga had a slow first half as he felt his way into the game but was sensational after the break as Queensland came back twice after conceding leads.
“Ponga has been good but he can do more,” said Paul Vautin at the break. “He has to sit out the back of the ruck like James Tedesco does for the Blues and sniff out some opportunities. He’s a world class player but they need him to fire in the second half.” And boy, did he fire.
“It was chaos, absolute chaos,” said Ben Hunt, who grabbed a try double for the Maroons. “Massive credit for our boys. Defensively tonight it was a big effort.
“The difference was Kalyn Ponga. He’s an exceptional talent. On the back of our attack he made it really crisp and he added a lot in the middle there. He directs our forwards around effectively.”
Teammate Cameron Munster also called out Ponga, who has been offered a huge contract to resign in Newcastle with a clause that would allow him to switch codes for the RWC.
“He’s a massive boost for us,” said Munster. “Obviously he’s a massive X factor when he gets the ball, no one knows what he’s going to do with it. It’s very scary when you’re versing him and I was happy to be on his side tonight.”
While Queensland displayed plenty of passion, they were questioned for the lack of it in the two previous games which finished 50-6 and 26-0 to the Blues.
“It was an Origin game and we got enjoyment out of the fact the game went down to the wire,” said Phil Gould.
“The players were outstanding, some of goal line defence was outstanding.
“My question to Queesnsland is where was all that in the first two games? Why do you play like that, with that sort of energy and that sort of spirit when you’ve been beatn by 50 and 26-0 in the other games. I don’t understand it.”
Blues coach Brad Fittler criticised the match officials after the match, and during the call he told Channel Nine he felt Queensland were illegally slowing his players down.
He felt Ponga knocked on before Hunt scored his second try.
“There was a few decisions I thought were pretty dodgy, I wasn’t happy with,” Fittler said.
“I thought the Ponga one on the right-hand side before the try, I thought that was a knock-on. I thought before the goal kick Latrell got pushed in the back. I haven’t seen the replay but when I first saw the knock-on I thought that was an obvious call.”
Latrell Mitchell had a chance to level the scores with less than two minutes on the clock, instead of pushing for a try. His long range effort in slippery conditions was within his range but fell well short.
“Latrell’s obviously put his hand up but fatigue, wet ground, wet ball, your plant foot doesn’t dig in…,” said Johns. “You’ve got to back Latrell if he thinks he’s going to kick it – you don’t question Latrell like that.”
Mitchell, who was exceptional in the first two games and ran Trbojevic close as player of the series, laughed off the miss.
“I think my shorts were a bit tight,” he said.
Paul Vautin said Queensland coach Paul Green’s chances of keeping his job would have been a million to one had the Maroons suffered a sweep, and the coach was a relieved man.
“I like what we’ve started,” he was quoted as saying by NRL.com. “The series didn’t pan out how we all hoped, but I said through the week the future for Queensland is bright. We’ve just got to scrap away until some of those guys get a bit of experience under their belt.
“Particularly, our culture was questioned [but] I think you don’t win Origin games like that if you don’t have character and you don’t stick together.
“You can talk about it all you like, but it’s what you do out on the field that counts and I thought we showed that tonight.”
Daly Cherry-Evans, who was booed during his post-match speech, added: “It’s not ideal when your culture gets questioned. Like I said during the week, these things only happen when you open yourself up to it by losing footy games.
“So the best thing we could have done tonight is win. Now that we’ve done that, hopefully we can show that that’s off the back of a lot of hard work and some pretty good culture.”