Brutality returned to the State of Origin arena in a retro series decider at Suncorp Stadium with three players knocked out in the first four minutes, punches thrown and in another throwback to the 1980s, Queensland upset NSW 22-12 to claim the trophy.
Despite being out on their feet late in the game after losing two players to concussions inside the opening few minutes, the Maroons kicked early to turn NSW around and tackled themselves to a standstill to record one of the biggest upsets in Origin history.
“That’s as good as a Queensland victory as I’ve ever seen,” triumphant coach Billy Slater said. “It was a courageous effort. It was a resilient, tough performance. There’s some pretty proud boys in there and they’ve earned that.
“I don’t think I’ve been any prouder of a team that I’ve been involved in than I am right now. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m in the moment right now but I said it after game one, I just felt a real connection to this group and I’m just so proud of them. I can’t put it any other way.
“I’m just so proud of the people they are. Their preparation, their behaviour, their performance and to go out and deliver that in front of their home people, that’s as good as it gets in sport.”
A try to Kalyn Ponga midway through the second half got Queensland with the fullback’s first four-pointer in a Maroons jersey now part of Origin folklore. Ben Hunt sealed the result in the 79th minute when he snaffled a Nathan Cleary chip kick to run 80 metres to the stripe.
“This is one of the most famous Maroons victories you will ever see,” Cameron Smith beamed in Nine commentary.
For Slater, the 2-1 series triumph after Queensland were hammered into humiliation last year was an amazing result for an undoubtedly legendary player who had never coached a senior side at NRL or representative level.
Blues coach Brad Fittler said the Maroons deserved the win but was unhappy about Tino Fa’asuamaleaui not being sin-binned for his part in Dane Gagai’s fight with Matt Burton.
“At the end of the day, Burton didn’t initiate it. He’s not going to fight anyone. He’s got belted. We got the penalty, he got belted, then got in a headlock and we walk out with one player down each. It’s a tad ridiculous. But it is what it is,” he said.
“We came up with some basic errors … it wasn’t anywhere near our best performance. Queensland were really good, without Cam Munster but (was it) the greatest (Origin) game, I’d say no.”
Maroons skipper Daly Cherry-Evans was emotional on the field, shedding tears of joy. “There’s a lot of history that’s gone before us and we unpacked a lot of that this week and we just knew that based on all of those Queensland moments that it was our turn to produce one.”
Rookie forward Patrick Carrigan was rewarded for his impactful efforts in all three matches by winning the Wally Lewis Medal for player of the series.
Carrigan looked stunned when his name was announced, as did a clearly delighted Cameron Smith who ushered the youngster towards the stage. “I don’t know what to say. I missed all that,” said Carrigan. “It was a tough series and the first five minutes really showed what it was about. I think the two fullbacks of both sides [Ponga and James Tedesco], probably one of them should be wearing this.
When it comes to Origin deciders, the Maroons are the undisputed kings. They have now won nine of the past 10 live game-threes and enjoy a 15-5 all-time record with two draws.
The first four minutes of the Origin were like no other in the 43rd year of the interstate contest with Blues forward Cameron Murray, and Queensland duo Selwyn Cobbo and Lindsay Collins ruled out for the rest of the match after copping heavy knocks.
Murray went first after the first minute after a head clash trying to tackle Corey Oates, stumbling as he tried to regain his feet.
Cobbo was the most sickening hit – he was knocked out after colliding with the hip of Carrigan in a gang tackle on Burton.
Then it was Collins stumbling after being on the receiving end of the impact of Tom Gilbert’s tackle on Daniel Tupou.
Slater couldn’t recall an Origin clash with so many wary casualties. “It was a unique game … I don’t know if I’ve seen a start to a game like that before.”
Former Blues skipper Paul Gallen in Nine commentary said “there wasn’t a lot of technique involved but they were putting their bodies on the line, that’s for sure”.
Queensland thought they had drawn first blood of the figurative kind in the eighth minute when Josh Papalii crossed after Jeremiah Nanai contested a Tom Dearden bomb but bunker ruled he propelled it forward in the aerial contest.
After Fa’asuamaleaui was placed on report in 10th minute for high shot on Burton, the Maroons went 6-0 up when Tom Dearden laid on the first try of his Origin career when he raided the short side and Stephen Crichton botched the defensive assignment on Valentine Holmes.
Blues pivot Jarome Luai claimed a try midway through the first half when he slipped but scrambled to win the race to a Cleary grubber and level the scores.
Dearden was denied a second try assist in the 27th minute when his last pass to Oates was correctly ruled forward.
Knights prop Jacob Saifiti, who had made an immediate impact with some damaging runs off the bench, barged over for a try on debut after the Blues had seized all the momentum throughout the middle part of the half.
A patented gravity-defying spiral bomb from Burton caused Ponga massive dramas when the ball sailed away from his grasp but it bounced favourably for the home side. “Kalyn moved 10-15 metres and he was still two metres away from it,” Immortal halfback Andrew Johns said in awe from the commentary box.
Blues winger Daniel Tupou then spilt a more straightforward kick from Daly Cherry-Evans to give the Maroons a bonus shot at the Blues late in the first half.
After the visitors deliberately conceded a couple of six-agains in the final minute of the half, Harry Grant circled around before dribbling a kick in-goal to set up a try to Kurt Capewell, who had switched to centre when Cobbo went off.
Holmes missed the conversion from out wide so Queensland trailed 12-10 at the break, however they had not only stalled the NSW momentum but managed to bite back.
The second half started with fireworks when Gagai took exception to Burton colliding with Ponga and the two ended up throwing punches, with several players rushing into the melee in a throwback to the early days of Origin
DCE nearly scored from a chip and chase while the fists were flying but the Blues got the penalty once the dust settled and the Queenslander chant went up around the packed Suncorp Stadium.
After being denied in the first half, Papalii was stripped of another rare touchdown in the 53rd minute when Nanai again propelled the pill forward before the prop could pounce.
Both teams allowed their opponents a chance to break the stalemate since half-time before Ben Hunt unfurled a 40/20 kick in the 58th minute which eventually led to a Stephen Crichton brain explosion close to his line when he passed in a tackle to nobody which nearly gifted the Maroons a try.
They hit the front on the next set after the line drop-out when Ponga beat four defenders from close range to touch down for the first time at Origin level to make it 16-12.
Johns marvelled at Ponga’s skill, awareness and determination. “That was just all heart. He just wanted that more. He just put that little skip to the outside of [Siosifa] Talakai. He knows the man. He’s not quite used to defending in that position of a back row.”
Grant bounced over from dummy-half in the 69th minute and celebrated enough to convince Ashley Klein he had grounded the ball but the bunker replays showed he was held up.
In the end it didn’t matter because Hunt’s effort not only repelled the last Blues counterpunch but sent them to the canvas.
Before the match, the Blues pulled a switch as expected with Junior Paulo getting the start ahead of Saifiti for the spot vacated by Jordan McLean’s hamstring injury while Queensland made a surprise move by starting Carrigan at lock and benching Fa’asuamaleaui, although he was in the action within a matter of minutes after the early carnage.
For a Maroons side which had lost Cameron Munster and Murray Taulagi to bouts of COVID-19 in the build-up to the match, the non-stop effort to claim the trophy has to rank as one of the state’s greatest since the birth of Origin in 1980.