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Opinion

Without Cleary and Luai, are the NSW Blues really that good at all?

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Expert
14th July, 2021
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Only seven times in the 40-year history of three-game State of Origin series has a side won three-nil.

After putting 76 points to six on the Queenslanders in the first two games, the odds were very good that the 2021 NSW Blues would be the eighth side to go through a series undefeated.

A true champion side – like the 1986, 1996 and 2000 NSW Blues, or the 1988, 1989, 1995 and 2010 Queensland Maroons – would surely have finished off such a clearly prone opponent.

Such was their dominance, the Blues’ total of 76 points scored in the first two games of the 2021 series is more points than was scored in 11 of the previous Origin series in total.

As well, all seven of the previous clean-sweeping sides had one big thing in common: they used very few players across the series.

The 2000 Blues side used just 21 players in total. The 2010 Maroons used 19. The 1986 Blues used 18 and the ’88 and ’95 Maroons, as well as the 1996 Blues, only used 17 players.

This series the Blues used just 21 players, with all four changes dictated by injury. However, two of those injuries were crucial to the success of the Cockroaches.

While the injuries to Jake Trbojevic and Daniel Saifiti weren’t ideal, there were ready replacements in Dale Finucane and Angus Crichton able to step up. However, the injuries to Nathan Cleary and Jerome Luai were far harder to cover.

Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

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For the last two seasons Cleary and Luai have been outstanding for the Penrith Panthers, guiding the their side to 32 wins from 36 starts. This season they were selected as halves partners for the NSW Blues and it reaped massive dividends.

Yes, the Maroons were missing both Kalyn Ponga and Josh Papalii for Origin 1, and Harry Grant and Cam Munster went in very under done.

However, Cleary and Luai totally dominated both the first two games, sharing two try assists, one line break assist, four line breaks and 11 tackles breaks between them.

However, it was their guiding of the team around the park that was the most impressive thing.

They knew exactly what they were doing at all times and consistently had their side in superb field position and their attacking plays looking venomous.

While the try-scoring dominance of fullbacks Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell in the centres took the headlines, it was Cleary and Luai who were the puppet masters pulling the strings.

Their supreme skills were highlighted even more by the disjointed performance of Jack Wighton and the anonymous effort of Mitchell Moses in Game 3.

Mitchell Moses

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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Jack Wighton has had a tough season: out of touch with the ball in hand, uncharacteristically struggling in defence and with a kicking game akin to Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

There was much trepidation in regard to his naming in the number six jersey by Brad Fittler. While Wighton’s kicking game in Origin 3 got off to a poor start, Wighton worked his way into the game, ending up with a try, a try assist and six tackle breaks. However, he is still a long way off his best form from the last two seasons.

While Mitchell Moses has 21 try assists for season 2021, he didn’t look even vaguely like he was any danger of leading the Blues’ attack to anything that resembled dangerous. All of a sudden Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic didn’t look anywhere near as dangerous. All of a sudden Queensland looked much better.

Don’t get me wrong, Moses and Wighton weren’t bad, they just weren’t Cleary and Luai. It is now clear to all paying attention just how good the Panthers’ halves combination actually is.

They are special.

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They may be Kevin Walters and ‘Alfie’ Langer special.

Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny special.

Steve Mortimer and Terry Lamb special.

Ricky Stuart and Laurie Daley special.

What those four legendary half/five-eighth combinations have in common is premierships: 14 in total between them in combination.

I won’t at all be surprised if Cleary and Luai have similar success in tandem at club level and with them at the helm of the NSW Blues it could be the beginning of quite a dynasty of success.

Without them on the field for Game 3, the Blues looked okay but not at all the rampant machine they were in the first two games.

Another issue with the Blues is that it took me until the second half of Game 3 to realise that James Tedesco was now the NSW captain.

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Tedesco had a very strong series and is unquestionably a brilliant player. Further, his ability to be clean shaven at kick-off and then be sporting a three-day growth at full-time is unparalleled in the National Rugby League.

James Tedesco

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

However, you have to question the overall leadership stocks of a side when he is the best option to take the helm – and he is.

We always knew that the Queenslanders would come out firing to avoid a clean sweep and they did.

The Queensland pack was back to their fearsome best, with Christian Welch and Josh Papalii really ripping in, ably supported by Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Moeaki Fotuaika and a rejuvenated Felise Kaufusi. They really laid a great platform for the Maroons’ victory, with Papalii playing over 60 minutes of game time.

They provided a great platform for the Maroons’ halves. Cam Munster had his usual busy game, doing his very best to annoy and harass his opponents by means fair and foul.

At halfback the much maligned Queensland captain Daly Cherry-Evans was very good, stepping up at crucial moments.

His kick in the 55th minute saw Josh Addo-Carr desperately and unsuccessfully try to stop a 40-20 and resulted in a repeat set for the Maroons that saw Ben Hunt score his first of two tries. In the 67th minute a rampaging Tariq Sims had just Cherry-Evans between him and the try line. Cherry-Evans took Sims down brilliantly.

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Yet the crowd still loudly booed Cherry-Evans when he went to the podium.

Maybe those deriding him were just frustrated that they hadn’t been able to watch Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai weaving their magic.

With those two in blue, NSW could be on the cusp of a dynasty of success.

However, without them, are the NSW Blues really that good at all?

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