Queensland have pulled off countless miracle wins throughout State of Origin history, but none as unlikely as their series-saving 18-16 Houdini act in Game 2 at ANZ Stadium.
Down 16-6 after being thoroughly outplayed in the first half and still trailing by four with less than four minutes left, it was yet again the Maroons’ old firm that pulled it out of the fire.
Cameron Smith and Billy Slater combined to send winger Dane Gagai over for the leveller, before the mercurial champion Johnathan Thurston – returning from injury and playing in his farewell series – buried the match-winning conversion from out wide.
NSW, meanwhile, are left to lament a gilt-edged opportunity to wrap up just their second series win in 12 years as every ghost of Origins past seemed to manifest in a horrific half-hour capitulation.
Queensland deserve every plaudit coming their way for their get-out-of-jail effort, but there’s no question the hosts choked badly in an error-strewn second stanza.
— NRL (@NRL) June 21, 2017
Few encounters in the Origin narrative have followed the ‘game of two halves’ narrative so spectacularly, and the looming end of the Maroons’ dominant era was building on the back of the struggles of their legendary spine.
Smith, Thurston and Cooper Cronk were uncharacteristically clunky in attack, while their kicking game was as bad as we’ve seen in this arena. The recalled Slater appeared too preoccupied with James Maloney’s niggle to make the necessary impact.
The all-time greats’ scratchy showing was emphasised by their counterparts’ precision and brilliance during the first half.
All four members of the NSW spine linked up to send Jarryd Hayne over for a Blues record-equalling 11th Origin try, a rapid reply to Queensland wing newcomer Valentine Holmes’ ninth-minute opener.
James Maloney scythed through sleepy edge defence to set up Brett Morris for NSW’s second. The maligned Mitchell Pearce leaving Cronk in his dust on the way to the try-line after a searing James Tedesco break could hardly have been more symbolic of a Blues coming-of-age storyline.
— NRL (@NRL) June 21, 2017
NSW second-gamer Jake Trbojevic, whose deft pass started the movement finished by Pearce, and Josh Dugan produced colossal try-savers in the dying seconds of the half, and the 10-point lead shaped as 10 times more insurmountable for Smith, Thurston and co than it has in any of the previous 10 series.
As in the first clash, NSW were physically on top and brimming with confidence.
But Gagai scored at the end with an ad-lib 60-metre movement to make the score 16-12 in the 53rd minute – and the Blues were unable to cope with the scoreboard failing to reflect their dominance.
The home side lost their composure, playing over-conservatively but still coming up with unnecessary mistakes – with Hayne a serial offender – and giving away penalties to repeatedly invite the Maroons closer to another great escape.
Despite the myriad opportunities, it looked like Queensland would still fall short; their playmaking icons’ bag of tricks seemed all but empty. Instead, this incomparable team added another extraordinary chapter to their enormous legacy.
It was a triumph laced with courage. Thurston and Darius Boyd carried on with bad injuries, while Will Chambers was carted off late due to concussion – but the Blues’ famed lack of ruthlessness reared its head again as they failed to target their opponents’ weaknesses.
It’s hard to see how Laurie Daley repairs his shattered troops’ psyche. For the first time since 1987, the Blues have failed to wrap up the series at home after winning the series opener in Brisbane.
Now they head back to an electrified Suncorp Stadium for the decider, where the spectre of Thurston’s Origin exit puts them firmly back in the underdogs slot.