NSW restored some battered pride by avoiding an Origin clean sweep but whether it’s enough for Brad Fittler to dodge the sack remains to be seen after the Blues blazed past Queensland 24-10 on Wednesday night.
Despite the invisible malaise which hovers in the background of a dead rubber, this match had a high level of skill, intensity and highlights but just seemed to lack that added punch that only comes when the famous shield is on the line.
That was reflected by the fact the match was not sold out with 75,342 turning up at Accor Stadium, leaving nearly 7000 seats empty.
Fittler finishes his sixth year at the Blues helm with three series wins and as many losses but it’s been the nature of the past two years to a seemingly much-better prepared Maroons outfit under Billy Slater that has led to calls for NSW to give Freddie the flick.
Slater also indicated in the post-match media conference that he wasn’t certain to be back and he would weigh up the decision with his family before committing to going around again in 2024.
The Blues made seven changes after their 32-6 embarrassment in Brisbane three weeks ago with Fittler recalling plenty of experience in veterans Cody Walker, Jake Trbojevic and Reagan Campbell-Gillard while also investing in the relative youth of Bradman Best, Keaon Koloamatangi and Jacob Saifiti.
They ended up having an average age of nearly 28, around two years older than Queensland, so while they may not have set the team up for the future, they have at least avoided embarrassment by bringing back some of their old hardheads.
Best, a controversial selection in the lead-up to the game, enjoyed a dream debut with two tries, and nearly a third, to toally outplay Valentine Holmes on their edge out wide.
“He came out tonight and showed he belonged on this stage,” Blues assistant coach Danny Buderus said.
Fittler was honest in his appraisal of his prospects of remaining Blues coach after the win, saying ultimately it would be up to the NSWRL directors to decide whether the Origin III victory was enough to convince them to stick by him.
“That may have had a bearing on what the board may think because they’ll decide who’ll be the coach going forward,” he said.
“They’ll speak to me about how I feel and if I’ve got the energy or if I want to do it,” he said.
“Their playing well and winning … the consequences of being beat by 30 would be different. We’ll wait and see.”
You would think Slater would be looking to settle into a lengthy stay as Maroons coach after series wins in his first two attempts but he said it’s not that straightforward.
“We’ll enjoy this series win and then that’ll sort itself out in the future,” he said.
When a reporter hit back with “you can’t leave this guys, can you?”, he added: “We’ll see.
“I’ve got to sit down with my family. I’ve really enjoyed the last two years, it’s been great. Queensland means a lot to me, this team means a lot to me and it’s been an enjoyable journey. I’ve got to make sure I’m doing the right thing for everyone.”
There are no obvious NRL vacancies on the horizon with his former club Melbourne seemingly locked into a succession plan for Jason Ryles to take over from Craig Bellamy at the end of next year while the four Queensland clubs have their coaching set-ups locked in long term with Todd Payten re-signing at the Cowboys, Des Hasler starting at the Titans next year and Kristian Woolf due to take over from Wayne Bennett at the Dolphins in 2025.
Slater said NSW had “a lot of energy about their defence and they beat us in that area”.
“It wasn’t our night tonight but it was still our series,” he said.
Slater added that he thought the team was ready to go despite it being dead rubber “but we just weren’t willing to earn it tonight, NSW were”.
“We didn’t give ourselves enough opportunities to build pressure. A few short-cuts here and there,” he said.
Maroons assistant Johnathan Thurston said Walker cut them to shreds in concert with Rabbitohs teammate Cameron Murray.
“When you’re just a percent off that’s the difference,” Thurston said.
“I thought Cody was the difference tonight. Defensively we were just off a little bit. When you’re playing against the best players, they make you pay.”
NSW were denied a try early by the bunker when a clumsy couple of kicks down the left edge robbed Best of a try with his first touch in the Origin arena.
Much like large portions of the first two matches, NSW dominated possession and field position for the opening 10 minutes and as soon as Queensland got a sniff up the other end they made a mark on the scoreboard.
A Cameron Munster high kick was batted back for David Fifita to open up a 6-0 advantage.
But unlike the first two matches which ended in defeat for the side in sky-blue, they hit back immediately when Best sent Josh Addo-Carr streaking away down the left flank and the hosts spun the ball the breadth of the field on the next play for Brian To’o to slice over in the right corner. He also benefited from a debutant’s deft touch with Keaon Koloamatangi batting the ball along at pace.
And pace was a factor again at the mid-point of the first half when Addo-Carr found space again down the sideline, chipped over Maroons fullback AJ Brimson and regathered to score a spectacular try.
The Foxx glided across the turf to give the chasing Maroons no chance of reeling him in as the Blues went 10-6 up.
It was reminiscent of Billy Slater’s classic four-pointer in a 2004 Origin at Brisbane “but this time he was onside” mumbled Olympic-class grudge holder Andrew Johns in commentary.
Best wasn’t to be denied the second time he surged over the stripe just three minutes later when five-eighth Cody Walker dug into the defensive line and delayed his pass perfectly for the Newcastle centre.
A 16-6 buffer would have been a fair reflection of the first half but the Maroons pegged the deficit back a few minutes before the break when Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow touched down, as he had done in his previous three Origins, sparking a try out of thin air with a clever kick behind the line.
NSW booted a penalty goal to make it 18-10 at the interval and with the players united in their game-day media ban due to the protracted CBA dispute, Nine sideline reporter Danika Mason had to make do with chatting to former Blues captain Paul Gallen walking off with the modern-day stars.
Neither team could establish a stranglehold on the momentum in the early stages of the second stanza and a Queensland near-miss was brought undone after Lindsay Collins was ruled to have knocked on in a cover tackle by To’o.
However, replays suggested he had possession knocked out by the NSW winger’s head and picked up by an offside teammate, which should have resulted in a Maroons penalty.
“I dont think there’s a knock-on there and I think everyone knows who I’m cheering for,” Johns added in commentary.
The Blues went perilously close to extending their lead in the 61st minute when Isaah Yeo scored after a short Maroons line drop-out but the bunker ruled Stephen Crichton propelled the ball forward in the aerial contest with Tabuai-Fidow.
But it didn’t matter a short time later when James Tedesco skirted around Daly Cherry-Evans near halfway to send Best sprinting away for a 24-10 lead heading into the final 15 minutes.
Tabuai-Fidow nearly had a second try when Murray Taulagi batted a bomb back to him and even though referee Ashley Klein awarded it, even Maroons assistant coach Cameron Smith conceded in commentary that he had knocked it on before the bunker officially did likewise.
Holmes had another chance to spark a trademark Maroons late surge but he fumbled a bouncing kick over the line with eight minutes to go.
The Blues got a chance to reset their defence and get a precious extra couple of minutes of breathing space when a pitch invader disrupted play but they held their nerve to hold Queensland scoreless in the second half.