Outfoxed by a rookie coach, widely criticized for his team selection, and ultimately ambushed and humiliated in front of a record crowd at home, Brad Fittler had both feet in the furnace. But the Blues coach held his nerve all week and now has his mojo back as NSW dominated their old foes to level the State of Origin series with a thumping 44-12 Game 2 victory.
Billy Slater pulled a card from the Cameron Smith playbook in Sydney and slowed the ruck. The Blue cogs got sticky, sending Cleary off his kicking game. It all unraveled without their talisman – and a Plan B by Fittler. Fittler swung the axe, picked a running side with a majority-Penrith spine, and put starch back in the defensive line.
Origin is NRL football in overdrive. Both teams were rushing in, Queensland smelling blood, NSW desperate to save the series. Both teams went close to scoring early but were foiled late. Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo charged down a Cameron Munster kick and regathered, but the ball beat them over the sideline. A Munster rush to Selwyn Cobbo was diffused on the goal line minutes later.
NSW was determined to win this battle by inches or miles, if for no other reason than they needed to. Two Queensland strips in two tackles gifted NSW the opening two points. But the weak points backfired. With breath back in their lungs, Ben Hunt stabbed a pass to Harry Grant, who found Kalyn Ponga. The rubber man fullback skipped a beat, bent into the defense, and spat the pip into the arms of Felise Kaufusi, who jinked in-out and harbor bridged an arm over the stripe.
There was renewed starch in the Blue wall. Recalled renaissance hitman Jake Trbojevic made an immediate impact, mixing brutality with class, as he upended Cobbo into the turf and apologized as he did it. Queensland returned fire, doing the unthinkable by driving a human tractor Payne Haas back in his opening charges.
Junior Paulo came on for the Blues at 25 minutes, bent the line, won a six-again, and slipped an offload within his first two runs. Despite Daly Cherry Evans and Munster rushing him, it bought Cleary a split second to jag a low kick on the diagonal to Origin debutante Matt Burton on the charge. With Cleary’s conversion, NSW returned to the lead 8-6.
Munster had been at his mesmeric best in Game 1, and again, he had spiders on him. At the 30-minute mark, he and Hunt combined with fast hands to rubberband man Ponga who loomed into the line like a Lighthorseman out of the dust at Beersheeba. He surged sideways, curved around Angus Crichton, and slung a pass back inside to – who else? – Munster. Queensland had their noses back in front.
Cameron Munster runs in to score for Queensland. Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP
A minute before half-time, Kaufusi was binned for repeat infringements in the ruck. On the next play, the Blues went left, and fast hands from Cleary to Jarome Luai to Burton put Brian To’o in the corner. Cleary sliced the ball between the uprights to give NSW a 14-12 lead at the break.
With Kafusi cooling in the sin bin, the Blues surged after the oranges. Cameron Murray, his head strapped but his mind clear, got repeat line speed and fast play the balls. James Tedesco was everywhere, returning every kick with precision and easily splitting the line. The pressure eventually told as repeat raids down the right side found Cleary with time and overlap out wide. He floated a three-person cut-out to Daniel Tupou, who crossed untouched.
The game breaker came out of nowhere. Lu’ai skipped, hopped, and goose-stepped past a poor Jeremiah Nanai tackle and a fatigued Dane Gagai. He bounced through and scored to put the Blues 14 points clear with 20 minutes to play. Four minutes later, Cleary dropped the ball cold in a tackle, but Burton saved his blushes on the next play with a man-on-man strip on an out-of-sorts Gagai. Cleary demanded the ball and rammed home his redemption, weaving behind the tired Queensland defense to plant the ball down and start the celebrations.
At 32-12, Blue murder was on the cards, and Cleary took the knife and buried it to the hilt with a twist, dummying past Hunt to cross under the black dot and register a double and bring up 22 individual points, the most by an NSW player since Ryan Girdler. Minutes later, Crichton, another enforcer recalled by Fittler, finished the rout with another four-pointer before the siren sounded and the slow march to a decider at Suncorp began.
Fittler pumped the air and shook each of his men’s hands, but there were no embraces. With a Game 3 in the Brisbane cauldron and a baying Queensland crowd to be countered, the job is only half-done for both sides. Origin history is dotted with great escapes, but when it comes to deciders, Fittler knows the game and the fans all too well and will take no prisoners.