James Tedesco’s 52nd-minute try put NSW on course for an emphatic 28-4 series-opening victory over Queensland, but it was the seconds before halftime at Suncorp Stadium that the long-suffering Blues came of age.
It was a familiar Origin scenario, one that has so often seen NSW wilt.
Leading 6-0 and holding the upper hand, the Blues were rocked five minutes out from the break after some Cooper Cronk-orchestrated brilliance produced the Maroons’ first try.
But NSW regrouped. Wade Graham and James Tedesco engineered a critical four-pointer for recalled halfback Mitchell Pearce, the individual embodiment of the state’s collective recent failures.
After an incredibly high-quality and evenly matched first half, the southern upstarts dominated the early stages of the second. Tedesco scored soon after a badly concussed Pearce exited the game, sparking an avalanche that saw Andrew Fifita and Jarryd Hayne score in the next eight minutes.
The end result: the largest Game 1 margin in 15 years, NSW’s biggest-ever win in Brisbane – and the shift of power on the Origin axis.
The Blues went for the jugular in attack and produced a string of desperate, extraordinary try-saving plays at the other end despite their massive lead; it was reminiscent of Queensland in their ruthless pomp.
But this Queensland side was missing names like Jonathan Thurston, Greg Inglis and Matt Scott, while containing a few who appear past their representative use-by date.
This was different to NSW’s win at Suncorp in 2014 which set up a drought-breaking series win; Jarryd Hayne carried the team that night, but he was merely one of 17 excellent contributors this time.
Tedesco was simply unbelievable – on both sides of the ball – while man-of-the-match Fifita was a tackle-busting, offloading menace who has surely climbed above multiple controversies to take a stranglehold on the game’s best front-rower mantle.
Maloney, David Klemmer and Nathan Peats were second-tier standouts, but every Blues player had shining moments.
The Blues’ man-to-man superiority was perfectly illustrated by their first try. Fifita’s break and deft pass for premiership-winning club-mate James Maloney to skip away galvanised the visitors after a shaky start.
For once, the Maroons’ rabid intent wasn’t enough. They were courageous and created half-chances, but without the polish of Thurston and Inglis’ destructive qualities, they were unable to convert chances into points.
Queensland still had their heroes.
Front-row debutant Dylan Napa played like a terrifying hybrid of ‘Chief’ Harragon and Gorden Tallis during his opening stint.
Only a handful of wingers have produced as much in their entire Origin careers than Dane Gagai has in five appearances. His night was a continuous highlights reel of big plays.
Pearce endured a fractured redemption fairytale. Rusty and hesitant throughout the first half, he took a trip to Disneyland not long after the resumption, thanks to a sickening clash with Will Chambers. But he scored a super-important try (see below) and his place in assured for Game 2.
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The Queensland crowd has been somewhat subdued in recent series (by Suncorp Stadium’s bombastic Origin standards), perhaps due to the Maroons’ overwhelming dominance. But the electrifying atmosphere early on seemed to reflect the nagging feeling their record-breaking team was more vulnerable that at any stage since Andrew Johns wore sky blue.
That instinct proved shatteringly accurate.
A Maroons comeback can’t be discounted, particularly with Thurston to return and the latitude of favouring form over loyalty for the next clash. But JT and his shell-shocked cohorts will be swimming against an intense blue riptide in Sydney in three weeks’ time with NSW’s confidence at a 12-year high.