How Origin II was won and lost: Blues’ overlooked heroes
State of Origin Game Two is in the books and the series is once again heading to a decider after the Blues put the cleaners through the Maroons in a 34-10 rout.
Brad Fittler's men saved the series with a performance that was streets ahead of their disappointing showing at Adelaide Oval as the magic dust fell off Wayne Bennett's men.
With the series on the line in next week's Suncorp Stadium showdown, here's where Origin II was won and lost.
CLEARY'S GAME COULD BE GAME-CHANGER
NSW tearing their halves apart is a tradition as old as Origin itself and after a forgettable series opener in Adelaide the knives were well and truly out for Nathan Cleary.
Cleary deserved some of the criticism that came his way after his showing in Origin I - he has been around the Blues for too long and has played too well this season for passive performances like that to be acceptable - but, as ever, the hyperbole got well out of control.
What was more concerning than Cleary's outing in the series opener was the totality of his work as the Blues playmaker. Infamously, he had zero tries, zero try assists, zero line breaks and zero line break assists from six matches. That's a large enough sample size to indicate a trend and for all of Cleary's accomplishments at club level and despite the fact he'd already played in two winning series, the Mitchell Pearce comparisons were growing louder and more insistent.
As such, it's not an exaggeration to say this may well be one of the defining performances of Cleary's career. The Panthers halfback found deliverance not by doing the extraordinary but by building on the parts of his game he showcases so well for Penrith. Cleary dug into the line and played nice and straight, which created room for the likes of Cody Walker and James Tedesco and allowed them to do what they do best.
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Cleary's kicking was exceptional, particularly down the right edge in conjunction with strong chases from Josh Addo-Carr as the aimless midfield bombs of Origin I vanished entirely, and he hustled hard in defence, using his physicality to his advantage. All together, Cleary seemed to be in total control of what his team was doing and how they were doing it and there can be no higher praise for a halfback.
It should not be a surprise that Cleary had this type of football in him. We all knew Cleary could do this because we have seen him do it all year for the Panthers. But if all it took to succeed in Origin was to replicate one's club form there'd be far fewer bodies in the graveyard of Blues halves.
Pearce has had a wonderful career at club level, but rightly or wrongly his struggles in Origin dominate discussions of his legacy. Origin is the game's biggest stage and it can transform stars into heroes and heroes into legends, but if you fail in a sky blue jersey the stain can be impossible to wash out. Cleary is still only 22 and his best football is in front of him, but the fact he has silenced the doubters - for a while, at least, is an incalculable blessing.
Cleary himself has readily admitted he does not have the playmaking skills of some of his competitors and must rely on effort, physicality and fundamentals to make up the difference. Under the harshest scrutiny of his career he trusted those strengths to hold up under pressure - he may well have more dazzling games, but this performance was more about character than skill and having the mental strength to believe the things he did well would be enough. That belief, and the courage to act on it, is what won him the day and that's as great a compliment as anyone can pay him.
BLUES WARNING: WALKER IS ON
Where Cleary's showing felt like the start of something, Cody Walker's was almost like the final step on a long and winding journey. Walker is not approaching the end of his career - he's 30, but still has plenty of good football in him, and games like this ensure the Blues five-eighth jersey will be his for some time - but games like this are his crowning achievements.
The Rabbitohs star was a slow starter when it came to first grade. Now he's one of the game's most dynamic players but he didn't play NRL until 2016, when he was 26, after a long and winding journey through the lower grades.
It's not dissimilar to James Maloney's path to first grade and Origin stardom. While the two may seem like polar opposites as players - Maloney offered direction, nous and cunning while Walker plays with a golden touch that makes everything seem effortless - there are parallels between the two.
Maloney always played with enormous confidence in his own ability, even if he was out of form or in a funk. His strength as a playmaker wasn't his skill, even though he was tremendously skilful, but rather his belief. No moment was ever too big for Maloney, and the stakes were never too high for him. He would back himself when he was playing for Wentworthville at 22 just like he would when he was playing for the Blues at 30. That's the greatest reason why Maloney took so well to interstate football, and that's why he's the best Origin half to come out of NSW since Andrew Johns.
Walker's faith isn't so bulletproof, but his exceptional showing on Wednesday night was founded in that same belief. Cast your mind back to Origin I last year, when Walker made his Blues debut.
Walker was better than advertised in that game - he grew into the match as it went on - but the circumstances of the match, where Walker was hooked with 20 to go before being put back into play with 10 minutes remaining, could well have damaged him beyond repair.
Instead, Walker has done exactly what he's always done, exactly what Maloney did and exactly what carried Walker through those second-tier years. He continued to play his game and he played it this way. The end result is what we saw in Origin II, when Walker took to the Blues attack like he was born to it, as natural a part of it as James Tedesco. The Blues attack flowed through Walker - he was only credited with one try assist but every single Blues score flowed through him at some point.
When it wasn't happening for Walker on his favoured left side, he switched to the right and went after the unfamiliar combination of Ben Hunt and a half-fit Kurt Capewell. He was equally adept at running regimented backline sweeps, like the Blues did for Daniel Tupou's try, or just giving his outside men early ball, like he did for Jack Wighton's try, or by taking what was on offer and making the most of it, like he did for Addo-Carr's second try. When it comes to halves play there is nothing Walker cannot do, no aspect he has not mastered.
Walker saved his Origin career by backing his instincts, by believing he could find the right option at the right time, and why wouldn't he? It's never steered him wrong before.
BLUES FORWARDS NEED PLAUDITS
The post-Origin discourse always focuses too much on the halves and too little on the forwards, which doesn't make much sense because the former can't do their jobs without the latter. So it's worth pointing out the Blues did an exceptional job setting a platform that allowed Walker and Cleary to land all the headlines.
Junior Paulo's swap with Payne Haas didn't attract as much attention as the Walker-Luke Keary swap but it proved to be a shrewd move from Brad Fittler. The Blues missed David Klemmer's yardage in Origin I, even though Daniel Saifiti and Paulo were both strong, and Haas is the closest parallel to the Knights giant.
Haas is the size of a mountain with the feet of a dancer but his best asset is his motor, which comes through when he plays longer minutes. Paulo can do the same but with his skill and power running he can also be a bench weapon. By swapping them, Fittler allowed both men to play to their strengths and the end result was 80 minutes of Blues domination in the middle.
Haas powered his way to 157 metres from 17 runs - the most of any forward - while Paulo provided nine runs for 72 metres, three tackle busts and an offload off the bench.
The Blues backrow should also rate a mention for a tremendous team effort. Jake Trbojevic's tackling was tremendous, with his line speed helping turn the tide after Queensland were on top early, Angus Crichton filled Boyd Cordner's boots very well and Tyson Frizell's impact belied the numbers he put on the stat sheet.
Queensland, to put it bluntly, got smashed up the middle. Josh Papalii is the state's best player and arguably their most important and he had just 71 metres from 10 carries - the Raiders big man needed more minutes, as did the fiery Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and Moeaki Fotuaika. Papalii played the opening 25 odd minutes before going off - it was 12-4 when he went off and 28-4 when he returned.
We know Papalii can play longer stints and given how thin Queensland's forward stocks have become they needed their kingpin on the field for longer. Wayne Bennett's use of his bench helped win the Maroons the day last week, but leaning more heavily on his big guns might have been the play this time around.
IT'S HARD TO BEAT TALENT TWICE
For the first 15 minutes, a repeat of Queensland's Adelaide ambush looked in the offing as the Maroons started very fast and opened the scoring through Xavier Coates.
The Blues discipline didn't help them either, as they gifted the Maroons field position through needless penalties, but everything shifted after 16 minutes when Queensland were hit with their first penalty of the match.
From the set start, the Blues marched down the field and ended up scoring through Walker. After that they were never headed as the resolve and fire of last week's win failed to flare up again for the underdog Maroons. Wayne Bennett did his best to deflect after the match, focusing on the Haas-Fa'asuamaleaui brawl, but there's a chance the resolve he instilled into Queensland turned them into something of a glass cannon.
Bennett still has the magic touch, and he inspired the Maroons to play above themselves in Adelaide, but summoning that same effort again in the decider will be a harder task again. Once belief has been cracked it's far easier for it to break than to be repaired.
The magic wore off for Queensland in this one - Capewell, a hero in Origin I, looked like a backrower playing in the centres. Phillip Sami looked like a solid NRL player who was out of his depth. Coates acquitted himself well under heavy pressure, but there were times he looked every bit of 19-years-old. Jake Friend looked like a 30-year-old with many, many miles on the motor.
None of this is the fault of the players, or a slight on their abilities. But there's no escaping the simple truth that this Queensland side is not as talented as their foes from the south. They need the Bennett touch, or the kind of mighty, unrepeatable efforts they saw in Origin I to take the Blues down.
Given they'll be playing at Suncorp Stadium in front of what will essentially be an all-Queensland crowd they may well find that fire again and even the greatest Maroons sides struggled in Sydney, but emotional peaks and valleys are hard to rely on.
In 2001, the series to which so many parallels have been drawn, Queensland debuted a host of rookies in the series opener and won, got smashed in Origin II and won Origin III on the back of Allan Langer's legendary return from Warrington. There's no Langer to save them this time. They might not even have Cameron Munster. Bennett will have to dance with the one what brung him, and hope that will be enough.
Originally published as How Origin II was won and lost: Blues' overlooked heroes