From the moment the final whistle was blown on State of Origin Game 3, NSW coach Brad Fittler and his chief advisor Greg Alexander have resembled a pair of fiery pit bulls trying desperately to defend their turf.
After two very disappointing losses, resulting in scathing criticism of the side from all corners of the media, Queensland have managed to prevent being clean-swept, winning the third and final State of Origin game by 20-18 at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast.
The lead-up to the third Origin game was like no other – it was originally fixtured to be played at Stadium Australia, until a lockdown on greater Sydney saw the match moved up the F3 to Newcastle.
Then, fearing that the coronavirus outbreak in the state would explode if the match went ahead in the Steel City, the NSW government advised that the match should not be played in front of a crowd, leading to the game being shifted again – this time to the Gold Coast.
This gave the Maroons, who had been severely scrutinised in the media after being humiliated in the opening two games, a third home game for the year, and thus the opportunity to avoid losing a series 3-0 for the first time since 2000.
While the northerners had their dramas all series, the Blues weren’t without their own issues, with injury forcing the halves, Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary, as well as Daniel Saifiti, out of the side that had won Game 2 at Suncorp Stadium by 26-0.
Still, Brad Fittler’s side arrived on the holiday strip with only one thing on their minds – the chance to become the first Blues side in 21 years to go through a series without defeat.
A penalty goal to Valentine Holmes got the scoring underway after just under five minutes, but it was the southerners who scored first through Latrell Mitchell, his successful conversion seeing his side lead by 6-2.
It would not be long until the Maroons hit back, with debutant Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow touching down for his first Origin try seven minutes later. With Holmes’ successful conversion, the northerners suddenly led 8-6, a lead that they would take to the halftime break.
At this point it was still anyone’s game.
Jack Wighton scored first in the second half to give the Blues back the lead, but the Maroons would not give in, with hooker Ben Hunt scoring a double to put the Maroons ahead by 20-12, and in a position to win the game.
With just over ten minutes remaining, Apisai Koroisau pegged back a try for the southerners, and with less than five minutes remaining had the chance to level the scores when Latrell Mitchell lined up a 50-metre penalty conversion, only for it to fall just short.
In the end, the Maroons held on for a well-deserved 20-18 victory, rewarding their fans after they’d suffered through the embarrassment of two horribly lopsided losses by a combined scoreline of 76-6.
That included a state-record 50-6 loss in the first game in Townsville, and a 26-0 wipeout loss at Suncorp Stadium in Game 2.
But even in lost causes, and with the thought of losing a series 3-0 weighing heavily on their minds, the Maroons have always found a way to save face in adversity, whether it’d be through pure grit, as we saw last night, or even pure anger, like we saw in 2003.
That year, they lost the series inside the first two games but then unleashed their anger on the Blues with a then-record 36-6 victory in the final game at Suncorp, which marked the debut of a then-20-year-old rookie called Cameron Smith.
They also avoided clean-sweep series defeats with victory in 2014, 2018 and now this year. Even in the former year, when their eight-year dynasty came to an end, they still scored more points than the Blues across the three matches, by 44-26.
Their 20-18 win in the first Origin match to be played on the Gold Coast was also a pressure-reliever for first-year coach Paul Green, who is no guarantee to return to his post as Maroons coach next year after undoubtedly enduring a tough initiation to the Origin arena.
It wasn’t just the results, but also injuries to key players as well as the expulsion of Jai Arrow from the squad for the third game after he brought an outsider into their team hotel, in a clear breach of the NRL’s upgraded COVID protocols.
Kalyn Ponga also missed the opening two matches due to a troublesome groin injury, and with his performance in the third game, Maroons fans could’ve been thinking what certainly could’ve been had he played in either of those two games.
But to finish off, congratulations to New South Wales, who despite failing in their bid for an Origin clean sweep have demonstrated why they are the new Origin powerhouse, the state having now won three of the past four series under supercoach Brad Fittler.
Latrell Mitchell had a series to remember, scoring four tries and four goals for a personal series haul of 24 points, though it was Tom Trbojevic who took out the Wally Lewis Medal for his impressive individual performances throughout the series.
It was also James Tedesco’s first series win as skipper, having assumed the captaincy last year when Boyd Cordner suffered a concussion in Game 1 at the Adelaide Oval, which ultimately fast-tracked his retirement from the game.
Assuming their star players remain injury-free and in good form over the first half of next year, it will take something special from the Maroons to attempt to bring down their southern neighbours in 2022.
With State of Origin over for another year, the focus now turns to the run to the NRL finals, which has been turned on its head with the competition to be based in Queensland for at least the next month, and quite possibly, until the end of the season.
Sydney’s ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, which has been extended to the end of this month, has made it logistically impossible for proceedings to continue in New South Wales, with two rounds of matches having been played behind closed doors recently.
On a positive note, the Melbourne Storm will finally play their first home match in over ten weeks when they welcome the Newcastle Knights to the Victorian capital, the reigning premiers having been based on the Sunshine Coast when Melbourne went into lockdown last month.
Craig Bellamy’s side are again the favourites to take out the premiership, which if they do will also mark the first time they’ve won consecutive titles.
However, as always, they will face some stiff competition from the likes of the Panthers, Rabbitohs and Eels, who will be flying the flag for COVID-stricken Sydney in the eight weeks leading up to September.