Almanac Rugby League – State of Origin I: New personnel, same result.

 

 

As an AFL supporter, State of Origin has always seemed mystical to me.

 

A wonderful concept. The adage: state against state, mate against mate.

 

Something that is long gone from AFL, the NRL have always realised that State of Origin is their point of difference. It’s unique.

 

It’s always gladiatorial.

 

Growing up in Melbourne with limited knowledge of rugby league, only the famous names resonate from that decade of Maroon dominance. Thurston. Slater. Smith. Inglis. Cronk. Lockyer. Then the amazing fight of Gallen to eventually break that drought.

 

When I turned on the TV Wednesday night, it all seemed foreign. The same biased commentary line up remained, alongside the standard pump up music. But there were no well-known heroes. No established champions who were household names throughout all Australian sporting households. Instead, only my keen sporting ear picked up a few names that I’d heard before. Cherry-Evans. Munster. Ponga. Ado-Carr. Cleary. Morgan. Suddenly the competition had spiced up because it had become so much more unpredictable.

 

The palpable excitement became understandable. Both radio and TV commentary was only decided by which state the person loved. Or hated. They come hand in hand. There were stories surrounding it. Maroons coach Kevin Walters and the ‘coach whisperer’ story (Google it, it’s worth a read), the selection of Cherry-Evans as captain despite being snubbed from the Queensland line up until game three last year. The list goes on.

 

When the game starts the initial hype dissipates. Queensland aren’t initially up for the fight. NSW look slicker and a class above after their 2018 success. James Tedesco is putting on a clinic. They quickly take a penalty kick to go 2-0 up. Queensland have a chance to bite straight back. But experienced winger Corey Oates makes the tiniest mistake of just stepping on the touch line before leaping for the try. No try, and momentum to the men in blue.

 

The game of territory continues until NSW bully their way forward. When they cross over for a relatively simple try, the contest threatens to go one way. The crowd dies down a little. There isn’t as much excitement, just praise for the fast-starting NSW outfit. But it builds slowly when the Maroons threaten again to bring the scores back towards a near-even keel. A fortuitous kick into a post bounces off and is seemingly snaffled up by Queensland for a lucky try. While commentators in the background yell in celebration (no attempt to hide their bias) the video referee intervenes again. On a line ball judgement about whether the ball was properly controlled by the Maroons, they show they have superior skills compared to the AFL goal review system. No try again. Will that completely deflate the Maroons? It should. It’s half-time and they’re down 8-0.

 

NSW have done everything right and been mighty lucky. But instead of capitalising on this and taking the game away from Queensland, they slip into the pre-half time lull and allow the Maroons to dictate terms. Munster is influential, dummying everywhere and stepping past lumbering forwards with ease. He’s a Storm boy, so that’s even better. Ponga is roaming well with the helmet on, directing traffic and belying his skinny frame to pass superbly despite the incoming freight trains longing to squash him. Little spot fires break out, a few wrestles here and there. This is more like it.

 

They quickly look to getting that try. And play upon play of pressure results in a line drop out, which soon turns into that much-needed try. They finally get the reward they deserve.

 

The crowd in Suncorp Stadium (a tick over 52,000) seem ready to burst out of the stands. The noise rises. They smell sky blue blood. The commentators can be heard cheering as loudly as the supporters.

 

NSW are no longer the team that will bow down to a Maroon surge. Maybe it’s because they aren’t facing the glorious team of only a couple of years ago. They’re now used to winning and don’t want to give that feeling up.

 

They dig in their heels and push forward. Play after play they inch closer to the try line. To glory. But as this is happening Queensland snatch it forward. They threaten and appear to just miss out on a try, knocked out of a player’s hands. But a whistle blows, and another review is conducted. There are calls for a penalty try against Latrell Mitchell for the professional foul. Maroons plead from the stands, but it it only results in a sin-binning. It’s still a big result.

 

But NSW think attack is the best form of defence. They work the ball upfield. They’re not playing to hold on. They want to score a try and win away, to set up the series. This seems to pay off, but suddenly it backfires. An errant pass is thrown and Gagai intercepts. The coast is clear for the speedster and perennial Origin try-scorer. He whips down the field, just holding on from a diving Ado-Carr to score the try that could break the Blues. Suncorp is erupting with noise, contributed to by the commentary box.

 

With Ponga taking his helmet off and converting a tough kick, the comeback seems complete. Minutes later he kicks a two-point penalty kick in remarkable fashion and they steer 10 points clear. But the Blues don’t give up easily. Not in Origin.

 

Just as the door is closing they thrust it wide open. They slide through for a hard-working try and the final five minutes are going to be nerve-wracking. Luckily for Queensland, they tackle and bump with every bit of effort left in them. They hold on. The comeback is complete. 18-14. Queensland!

 

The second clash in Perth is going to be exhilarating if it follows the trend of game one.

 

 

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