Billy Slater was thrilled to see the Queensland spirit was back while Brad Fittler thought the referee allowing a slow ruck hurt his team as the new Maroons coach continued his dominance of the Blues by guiding his underdogs to a 16-10 boilover in the State of Origin series opener at Accor Stadium on Wednesday night.
Needing to restore pride after last year’s series drubbing, the Maroons hustled and bustled the Blues to convert a 6-4 half-time advantage into a massive upset heading into game two at Perth’s Optus Stadium on June 26.
The Blues came back from a 1-0 series deficit in 2019 but that was with the final game in Sydney – the series finale will be at the Maroons’ Suncorp Stadium cauldron on July 13.
“It’s outstanding, we needed to do it,” Maroons star Cameron Munster said when asked about the importance of notching the first victory.
The Storm five-eighth was named man of the match for his barnstorming performance which included a line break and a couple of crucial one-on-one strips.
Queensland’s scrambling defence was superb with maroon jerseys turning up time and time again when it looked like the slick NSW machine would power to the line.
Isaah Yeo nearly scored on the last play of the game but the visitors again stood tall to drag him down just a metre from the stripe.
“That’s what Origin’s about. They saved more tries than we did,” Blues halfback Nathan Cleary said.
There was controversy as always with James Tedesco and Junior Paulo each denied a try while Paulo also claimed he was denied the chance to prevent one but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
“They won the ruck. They did a really good job there,” Fittler said. “They held on and (referee) Ashley (Klein) didn’t want to give penalties away.
“We got a penalty with 17 minutes to go, it was the first penalty. We should have done a better job. We should have held them down longer – simple.”
He was unhappy with Paulo being held back after a scrum which led to a Daly Cherry-Evans try but said the refereeing decisions in isolation didn’t ultimately cost his team the result.
Slater said he was mirroring his old Storm mentor Craig Bellamy’s fiery antics in the coach’s box more than he thought he would.
“They feel like my family already, I’m not saying that just to say it. I feel a real connection to these guys. They’ve been outstanding all week,” he said.
“There’s a real camaraderie around the group, they’re happy to be together. And I knew the week went well, I knew the preparation went well, we just had to go out and perform.
“We want the footy in Cam’s hands but everyone’s got a role in our team. It’s not just give Munster the ball, that doesn’t work. You’ve got to have structure, you’ve got to play footy. We know our game and we’ve got improvement in our game.
“But it wasn’t the way we played that won us the game tonight. It was the way Queensland have played for decades – that’s what won us the game tonight.”
The drama started from the opening hit-up in front of 80,512 fans with Yeo appearing to stumble after attempting the first tackle but he was cleared to stay on the park.
After Liam Martin fumbled a chance to make the first break of the game, Daly Cherry-Evans put the Maroons on the front foot with an incisive run before Ben Hunt’s attacking kick on the next play dribbled over the dead-ball line before Valentine Holmes could reel it in.
Selwyn Cobbo was rag-dolled into touch in the 10th minute and NSW were penalised but DCE’s pass to Tino Fa’asuamaleaui was knocked on as they threatened the line.
The Blues drew first blood in the 15th minute after Xavier Coates’ intercept attempt gifted them an extra set deep on the attack. Jack Wighton crashed over on the left edge, charging through Dane Gagai’s tackle after Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai’s clever lead-up work.
Cleary’s sideline conversion bounced away off the upright.
Maroons forward Patrick Carrigan made an immediate impact when he came off the bench in his debut, smashing Wighton in a thunderous tackle and then getting over the try line before he was repelled by desperate NSW defence.
Harry Grant was held up a minute later and after knocking back a certain two points for an offside penalty, Queensland lost the pill and then Coates in the 28th minute when he hobbled off with a left ankle injury, sending Kurt Capewell to centre and Holmes onto the wing.
Cherry-Evans put in his nomination for the worst captain’s challenge of the year when he claimed he had been hit high by Wighton as he slipped on the last tackle of a set but the bunker rightly denied his plea as his opponent barely hit him and the Queensland skipper was almost around the NSW centre’s ankles he slid that low.
NSW looked like they were denied a fair try when Daniel Tupou collected a bomb and put James Tedesco sailing to the right corner but referee Ashley Klein called it back for a forward pass even though replays suggested it was flat at worst.
The Maroons went 6-4 up five minutes from half-time when Broncos winger Selwyn Cobbo collected a pass on the bounce, shot down the right flank and kicked inside for Gagai to move into equal-third on the all-time Origin tryscorers’ list with his 12th touchdown in his 20th match.
NSW looked to have stolen the advantage back a few minutes later when prop Junior Paulo stormed over next to the posts after Tariq Sims had skittled the Queensland defence on the previous play.
But the try was denied by the bunker after Cameron Murray caused an obstruction by stopping in the defensive line to impede Carrigan.
“I felt like we couldn’t get out of our own end,” Blues coach Brad Fittler told Channel 9 at half-time.
Cowboys forward Jeremiah Nanai’s Origin debut looked like it had ended four minutes after the break when his right leg buckled while trying to tackle Brian To’o, but he was able to return midway throguh the second half.
Cameron Munster split the NSW defence in the middle of the field and after a Tupou knockdown, Cherry-Evans scooted over from the scrum win despite NSW protesting that Paulo was held back to make it 12-4 after 10 minutes of the second stanza.
Kotoni Staggs went off a short time later with a shoulder injury, replaced by fellow Blues rookie Stephen Crichton, who was put on report straight away for a lifting tackle on Munster.
“We need to generate some speed and get the ball down the other end, it’s as simple as that,” Fittler said.
And on the next play, the Maroons surged further ahead when Ponga created an overlap on the short side to fire a bullet pass to Holmes hurtling to the line for an 16-4 cushion.
Queensland repelled several attacking raids before Munster came up with another huge play, knocking the ball out of Wighton’s grasp close to his goal line in the 67th minute and Gagai was only denied a match-sealing try on the next set by a try-saving tackle by Reagan Campbell-Gillard.
The end to end play continued with Tedesco kicking ahead for Nathan Cleary to potentially score but Holmes came from the clouds to scoop up the bouncing ball at pace.
Murray gave the Blues a sniff soon after though when Jarome Luai put the back-rower into a gap, cutting the deficit to six.
Wighton nearly scored and Crichton was heading in the same direction when Munster again stuck in the Blues’ craw by pinching the pill from the Penrith first-gamer.
“If you lose the first one, you’re up against it,” Fittler said. “It’s going to be tough. A good challenge.”