What just happened?
Il Rosso e il Blu (‘The Red and the Blue’) was a trippy Italian claymation kids’ show from the ‘70s that starred a pair of shape-shifting adversaries who’d begin each episode as a block of clay and divine ever-creative ways to dominate their enemy. There was tragedy, glory, revenge, hubris – it was a good little show.
State of Origin rugby league knows the same theatre. It was a good little show when Arthur Beetson bombed out onto Lang Park in 1980, dusted with talcum powder, bristling with intent, snorting like an old rank bull. And it’s grown into a very big show since. Origin’s three matches are among the five most-watched shows each year. It’s testament to the compelling nature of the series, of the story of it, that we’ll still watch though one side’s long dominated the other.
Because unlike Il Rosso e il Blu, Spy vs Spy or yin-v-yang, in the recent history of the bash-up derby that is Origin, the maroon team has dominated the blue like Road Runner owns Wile E. Coyote. In a series that was once spookily even, equilibrium ruptured, 12 series to one. It was Queensland, time after time and time.
And now it’s not. And it won’t be for a while.
The 2018 State of Origin series marked, if not a seismic shift in the fortunes of New South Wales and Queensland, a re-balancing of the force. In 2018, a new blue empire emerged – younger, faster, better – just as the Maroons’ dynasty finally limped away proudly into the night. Cam Smith retired, week before Game 1. Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston were already done. Billy Slater and Greg Inglis nursed old bones. The pair would play just the one match together in Game 2 and won’t play another. It would make them sad – but they’ve had a fair old run.
Meanwhile, Brad Fittler picked 13 debutants, imbibing kids and colts and spunk-filled punks with his patented home-spun cool guy mojo, with his special sauce, his Freddy mojo. He put his well-known voice in their minds. And out they ran – unscarred, unsullied, feelin’ good cos Freddy made ‘em so, fast-twitch muscle fibres springing out their veins. There hadn’t been so many shiny new faces since the barracks scene in Full Metal Jacket. And they ran at Queensland like the Viet Cong.
Fittler seemed to pick players he liked watching, for entertainment value. Tyrone Peachey is his spirit animal – the all-running hot ticket item from Wellington whom Freddy injected when the big rumble men wilted. Peachey is a lot of player, and a lot of players. He could play every position bar front-row. He would play only 36 minutes in three games yet will be nigh-on first picked in 2019. He’s a better utility than a Sidchrome spanner.
Look at Josh Addo-Carr, ‘The Fox’. Gotta love the Fox: faster than a scalded cat, not a lot on his bones, he might not have won a gig a decade ago just as Nathan Merritt mostly did not. When Merritt was given a go he was towelled up by Inglis, and never seen again. Fittler, though, invested in the Fox. And the Fox felt the love, and ran and ran and ran.
Fittler picked forwards in form, forwards he fancied. When the hard-charging Reagan Campbell-Gillard was injured, in came Matt Prior, 31, to do a job. After him, on a whim, Tariq Sims. Paul Vaughan played three games. Ryan James didn’t play any, but like his mates in the middle, he’s a big lump who’s been around the block.
Freddy talked to these people and kept it simple. The plan was uncomplicated: bung ‘em in. Rip ‘n tear. Bring ‘em off. Repeat. And the NRL’s form forwards rent the Maroons’ middle asunder.
And Queensland – with respect to Dylan Napa, Jarrod Wallace and Tim Glasby – didn’t have the middle to match. Josh McGuire is like that evil pooch Muttley in Wacky Races, a barnacle-crusted little belter. Gavin Cooper – lot to like about Gavin Cooper – runs an edge and scores more tries than most backs, the poor man’s Steve Menzies. They’ve also found a live one in Jai Arrow. He hits like the recession.
But the Blues had six of him. Vaughan. Campbell-Gillard. David Klemmer! And the Maroons did not have – because no-one in the world of rugby league would have – anyone truly capable of stemming the human tide and stopping the Blues’ big units powering up guts.
The entire series’ equilibrium shifted on the back of it.
Well – that and Cam Smith retiring. That was a bit pivotal.
Meanwhile? Meanwhile! Conversely, the Blues had Damien Cook in the form of his life. Nathan Peats had been tried. They wouldn’t have lost a lot if Cam McInnes got the gig. But Cook is prime. And Smith’s replacement was Andrew McCullough. Very good player. Very, very, very, very, very long way from Cameron Smith.
And with Smith’s non-entity and the Blues’ forward domination of the central corridor gifting space to the eagle-eyed trio of Cook, Jimmy Tedesco and the jolly ginger-bearded pirate Jimmy Maloney, New South Wales won the series. As ever, rugby league is won up front by big men laying a platform. And the blue side has bigger and better big ones than the maroon. Fact.
Yet nowhere was the blue swing symbolised more aptly than in the rise of emerging superstar Latrell Mitchell, mirrored by the almost equal decline of the champion, the best big back since Mal Meninga, Greg Inglis.
It’s like Mitchell became Inglis. Like the life force, the very electric soul of one man, the great GI, ebbed into the younger. Mitchell’s fend and speed and step and overall brute power at the line is eerily reminiscent of Inglis in his pomp.
Watch old games on the YouTube. Watch Inglis in Game 2 of 2008. Queensland won 30-0 and Inglis ran roughshod over a crack centre in Mark Gasnier and tossed a tough little critter like Steve Turner about like a rag-doll. He was imperious. Long-legged, beautiful running style. He was unbelievable, GI.
But he’s not anymore. Now he’s quite believable. He’s the seasoned pro, certainly worthy of the spot. But he’s like Meninga in his dotage. He’s there because who he is. GI. One of the greats. And yes, he was tough in the first two games. He led, looking to inspire his people with big shots and hard charges. But he wasn’t The Dominator. He wasn’t being fed by Thurston, Smith and Cronk. Darius Boyd wasn’t outside him. He was but a man, 31 years old. And his best days are done.
Latrell, meanwhile, is not yet prime, which is a scary enough thought. Throughout the series he duelled with the narky hard man, Will Chambers. Ran over him. Let him know about it. They scrapped like pig-dogs. There’s a bit about big Latrell. He’s confident to the point of cockiness. Fittler and Roosters coach Trent Robinson will keep a lid on any excess. But they’ll set him free. They know Mitchell knows he can play. That there’s the barest hint of a strut to his long gait. Good luck to him. Why quash confidence?
Inglis had the same thing. Now, in footy terms, he’s an old man. He knows he can play. He knows what he can do. But he also knows he can’t play like he could. Not anymore. Next series will surely be his last, as this one was Slater’s.
The champion fullback of his generation was man-of-the-series, and whatever you think about it (and too much was thought about it) it takes a champion to itch the pants of the expert button-pushers after two games in a losing side. He was certainly among the most effective afield in games two and three. And left a black hole in Game 1. That the Maroons didn’t fill it with Kalyn Ponga in hindsight looks a mistake. Queensland elders talked of longevity for the boy. But when that guy’s good enough you bung him in.
But they did not until they had to. And then they watched Kid Fantastic play 52 minutes in a ball-playing running role at the line, and watched him almost level the series for his side, only a stunning cover tackle by Tedesco robbing the wunderkind of the honey. Ponga is very much the real deal. Queensland’s hesitance to arm themselves with his strike-power ultimately cost them.
So! Call it a changing of the guard. Say that nothing lasts forever. Para-phrase old mate from Kenny and declare that while there are indeed smells that will outlast religion, no one state can dominate State of Origin forever. You could say a lot of things, and people will nod along, sagely stroking their collective goat-beards.
But what’s clear is this: the storied State of Origin super-series of hate and mates, and mate-baiting hate, and running, and fighting and so forth, has known a re-balancing. The Blues are back. The Maroons are back in the two-prong pack. And Origin is again as we once knew it: two antagonistic blocks of clay, doing their best to bash each other.
For the first 25 years of State of Origin rugby league, results were eerily similar. Neither state could claim advantage in any pertinent match-marker. Series wins, match wins, even down to tries scored and goals landed, they were all there and thereabouts. The closeness was remarked upon. It was a thing.
And then came 2006 and a claque of hardy, tough, little critters and athletic bounders joined Darren Lockyer, Petero Civoniceva and Justin Hodges, and begat a great dynasty. Greg Inglis, Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, they were still kids but already stars. Queensland had a backline so good Cooper Cronk couldn’t get a start. A backline so good Slater played on the wing. Brent Tate played on the wing. Israel Folau played on the wing. They just kept pumping out these people: Karmichael Hunt, Matt Bowen, Scott Prince…
Civoniceva was still tearing it up in the middle, this brutal big body throwing himself into the fray, time and again. He took a lot of stopping, old Petero, and caused many men short-term pain. Steve Price went with him, young Matt Scott went with him. Nate Myles threw his massive head about like an orca breaching out the sea to kill a boat.
There was nasty Carl Webb and angry Mick Crocker, and tough Dallas Johnson who channelled ‘The Axe’ Gillmeister and caused big Blues men to rub their sternums like kids rubbing tummies.
For all Queensland’s dominance, NSW were never really beaten up. Well, maybe there were a couple of times.
From 2006 through 2017, the Maroons were beasts and beast masters. And the most masterful beast master of them all was the No.9, Cameron Smith, who linked the greatest backline of all time with the nastiest big bits of kit they could drag in from the Bundaberg Rum factory fight club.
Smith was… well, you know what he was. Most Origins (42). Most Origins won (24). Most Origin series won (11). Most Wally Lewis medals for man-of-the-series (four). Most unlikely body to play top-level league since spindly Steve Mortimer.
And yet for all Queensland’s dominance, NSW were never really beaten up.
Well, a couple of times they were. Game 2, 2010, the points were piled on the Blues like scoops of maroon-coloured ice cream. Lockyer fed Slater and Folau. Thurston fed Inglis and Boyd. And all of Queensland feasted on the scraps. It was a slaughter. Inglis scored in the fourth minute. Folau scored in the 12th and 48th. Willie Tonga scored. Cooper Cronk came off the bench and scored. It was 36-nil until the 79th minute when Brett White bowled over. NSW didn’t even win the fights.
Game 3 of 2015 was another slaughter at Suncorp when, with the series in the balance, Queensland ran in try after try, and laughed in Mitchell Pearce’s little face. It was like catching barramundi at a honey hole. They bombed in, every five or ten minutes, another try. Dane Gagai scored in the 15th minute followed by tries to Josh Papalii (27th) and Greg Inglis (35th). At half-time it was 20-0. Matt Gillett scored after the break. Micheal Morgan scored. Darius Boyd scored. Will Chambers scored. Aiden Guerra scored to make it 50. Thurston landed his ninth straight goal, and Queensland flogged the Blues 52-6, the greatest margin there’s ever been.
But otherwise, the Blues went okay.
Indeed, there was only one clean sweep (in 2010) across the period. And in 2014, NSW actually won a series when Jarryd Hayne got jiggy and the first two fixtures featured high physicality and near-perfect completion rates, and NSW emerged victorious 12–8 and 6–4. And there was much rejoicing.
But Queensland won Game 3, 32–8. And just about everything hence. And trotted out some of the greatest players there’s ever been. And while there was never certainty prior to any series – it’s Origin, it’s fierce, the players are really very good – and NSW were even bookies’ (if not punters’) sweethearts a time or two, the great Queensland dynasty of champions had the wood on the Blues, and no argument. And all NSW could do was wait them out.
And now they have.
And here we are.
Along with 13 debutants, a series win and the thanks of a thirsty blue nation, the best thing Brad Fittler brought to NSW is Brad Fittler.
He is good people, as they say. He’s straightforward, honest. He was an awesome player. And every one of the Blues has grown up either watching him play or hearing him talk on the telly. And now he’s in their ear with his funky, funny wisdom. And they feel good. And footballers are feeling good, they tend to play footy. And when players this good are playing footy, that footy can be sensational.
Fittler’s instituted a marked change-up in culture. There were barefoot bonding sessions. There were no phones in the camp. There was no Andrew Fifita, Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson, or Jarryd Hayne – interesting characters, occasional lack of character.
Fittler has never said their time is up in the blue jumper. Hasn’t really had to. He didn’t pick them, did he? Just preferred others. You’d suggest there’s no going back. And why would he? Josh Addo-Carr, James Tedesco and Tommy Trbojevic will own fullback and wing gigs for the foreseeable future. Raiders ace Nick Cotric will by a ready standby. He’s already bashing on the door.
Latrell Mitchell owns the left, we spoke of him. How good is Latrell? How about brushing off Euan Aitken and steamrolling honest Jason Nightingale the other day? Inglis used to do that. Meninga, for sweet baby Jesus’s sake, did it too. Mitchell has just turned 21. One assumes he’s not still growing…
On the other side, we give you Jimmy ‘The Jet’ Roberts, owner of blinding gas. The absolute true gas of the speed fiend. Had a fractious period of finding himself, our Jimmy, as our young men can. A man’s brain hasn’t fully formed until he’s 27 or so, science tells us. But Jimmy’s been shown a bit of love and faith and what have you. And here he is in blue. And he can move, baby. Blink and he’ll be in Brisbane.
In the No.7 Nathan Cleary could be the 30-plus match halfback that Mitchell Pearce would’ve been if Queensland wasn’t so very good and people so very unkind. The Blues could build a team around Cleary. And the first thing they’ll do is find a No.6 to go with him.
Jimmy Maloney – noble steed – will turn 33 in the middle of 2019. There’s still plenty of sap in him and you’d suggest he has first dibs on the six. And you’ve gotta love a larrikin with a ginger growth and a grin. But if father time caught up with Johnathan Thurston it could sneak up on Jimmy and mug him in the night.
And the Blues have options in the six. Luke Keary can’t be far away. Matt Moylan has wicked skills. Broncos man Jack Bird is 23 years old. Gotta like the Bird Man, he’s a goer.
Want a left-field one? Mitchell Pearce. Don’t laugh – Pearce is 29 years old. He’s playing very fine footy. Coach Fittler knows he’s good people. He’s declared that Pearce is not out of contention. Who’s to say Pearce won’t get the Knights humming in the first few rounds of 2019 and fairly demand inclusion? It’ll be a story, anyway. People love a story.
Elsewhere, the fabulous Trbojevic brothers look set for the long haul. They have a little brother, 18, and you’d assume he goes okay. Feed the man meat, as they say. And continue to feed Angus Crichton, Tyson Frizell and the mighty axe-man who cometh from Kogarah, Jack de Belin.
The Blues are lookin’ good.
Yet this is not to say we’re looking at a decade of Blue Time. This is not to suggest we’re at the start of a Cleary dynasty with a 20-year-old running gun of a halfback feeding piss-fast outside backs while the fabulous Turbo brothers rend Queensland asunder.
Now, Queensland can’t replace Greg Inglis with Latrell Mitchell becuase, today, if you’re from Macksville that’s in NSW.
No. Those people are all very good, of course. But Queensland has not gone far away, even if they can no longer call upon the greatest players there has ever been.
Indeed, the Maroons can win series in the next few years on the back of their generation next. Fact. Queensland is like a veritable breeding ground for league people. Seen that bit in one of the dud Star Wars prequels, where there’s all the stormtroopers cloned from Jake the Muss? That’s every town in Queensland from Cooktown to Coolangatta.
It’s been a procession. Lockyer took off the No.6 jumper and gave it to Johnathan Thurston. Thurston took off the No.7 and gave it to Cooper Cronk. Matt Scott may as well have come from the womb of Shane Webcke, as disturbing a thought as anything written upon these web pages as that may be.
But no more. Queensland will still unearth champions. Billy Slater has a ready-made replacement in the super-freak from the outback and New Zealand, Kalyn Ponga. How much are we looking forward to watching Ponga? He is a live one, and no argument.
But unlike ten years ago, Queensland don’t have six of him. There’s one Kalyn Ponga. And one Greg Inglis – and he’s on his very last legs. And they can’t replace Inglis with Latrell Mitchell because, today, if you’re from Macksville that’s in NSW.
They couldn’t replace Thurston with anyone but Ben Hunt. And then Daly Cherry-Evans. Respect to both. But whom Queensland has in the halves in 2019, they don’t know. Anthony Milford’s still bopping about. And there’s no standout No.7 for the Maroons for the first time since Thurston took over from Scott Prince in 2004.
And yet, like Sparta, this is Queensland. And like the warriors of Sparta, they’re apt to kick you into a massive pit when you’re not looking. Queenslanders don’t play State of Origin, they live it, imbibe it, suck it into their pores and spit it out like the venom of a cobra. There will never be an easy game. They will never play a friendly.
How will they play it? As they have ever done – to their strengths. Queensland’s strength is still in their backs. If they’re smart they’ll bung in Ponga at fullback and just let him do his thing, as he always has. There’s no step-up he can’t handle. He could go play for the All Blacks next week. He could hit could a six-iron stiff in the Australian Open. Kid’s ridiculous.
Val Holmes? How about him? What a beauty. Dane Gagai? Mate – how good? Michael Morgan and Cameron Munster are hot, quality halves. Dangerous people. Different to the likes of Cleary and Pearce and so on. But players. Footballers. For mine, Kevin Walters will invest Morgan in the No.7 general role, tell him he’s the commander in chief. And he’ll put Munster in the No.6 with a mandate to be Munster – the hot-footed funster.
And then he’ll decide which of Daly Cherry-Evans or Ben Hunt to bring on late and/or put into hooker.
And there’s the rub for Queensland: right in the middle of the park.
Queensland dominated for years because the man who touches the ball most was one of the greatest players the game has seen. Andrew McCullough and Jake Friend and other Origin aspirants are not the greatest players the game has ever seen.
Smith and Slater’s retirements will see the biggest shift in Origin since Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga went out and Laurie Daley and Ricky Stuart came in. These fixtures will always be competitive. But without Smith, Cronk, Thurston and Slater, with Inglis on his last legs, and the Blues sporting a young and surging squad of speedsters who’ve got half-a-dozen years of primetime ahead, you’d have to suggest NSW are a short half-head in front. And they may be for a while.
It’s Blue Time. Blue Time is now.
Written by Matt Cleary
Matt Cleary is a sports writer from Sydney. He enjoys golf, footy and Four Pines Pale Ale, and spends as much time as conscience allows at Long Reef GC. Tweet him @journomatcleary, or read him at his website.
Editing and design by Daniel Jeffrey
Image of Origin 3, 2015 credit: AAP Image/Dave Hunt
All other images are credit: Getty Images