Astar was born in debutant Matt Burton. An all-time game was produced by halfback Nathan Cleary in an arena he had failed to truly put an imprint on. A maligned pack dominated from beginning to end. It was New South Wales’ night in Perth, a dominant 44-12 victory that levelled a compelling series.
At its core though, it was a failure at the basic fundamentals of the game that saw Queensland on the back foot for much of the opening half before being blown away in the second stanza. Poor tackling, a loss through the middle, basic handling errors and a lack of discipline ensured a dire final script for the Maroons.
Missed tackles is often an overstated and misleading stat but the Maroons missed an astonishing 60 tackles. To put that in context, Queensland missed “just” 52 in their 50-6 loss in the infamous opener last season while no team in the last decade has missed more than 53. Jarome Luai, Cleary and Angus Crichton all scored off simple one-on-one misses.
Dane Gagai led the way with eight while five others missed at least five tackles. Jeremiah Nanai missed four in just 29 minutes of action including a simple miss on Luai when the Blues No 6 simply powered through an arms tackle. It is rare at Origin level to see both poor technique and a lack of commitment to tackling, both of which will worry Billy Slater no end.
The ruck was the one area New South Wales identified as the reason for their defeat in the opener. They took a naive view as to how the game would be officiated but they were also outmuscled in the middle. They turned it right around in Perth. Team changes on both sides assisted. Jake Trbojevic let nobody down in a brilliant recall performance leading all NSW forwards in metres and post-contact metres. Four Blues middles – Trbojevic, Payne Haas, Isaah Yeo and Junior Paulo – all topped 100 run metres and 39 post-contact metres. Eight players from the NSW pack or bench averaged 3.9 seconds or fewer with their play-the-balls.
That stands in stark contrast to the Maroons pack. Patrick Carrigan was the only forward to top 80 run metres and was one of just two forwards to surpass 17 post-contact metres. Four forwards averaged over 3.9 seconds a play-the-ball. The Blues won the average set distance by an astonishing 42 metres to 27. The Maroons pack was simply brutalised through the middle.
Diabolical handling, particularly from the young Queensland wingers, ensured the Maroons seemed to constantly be defending their own line. Both Selwyn Cobbo and Murray Taulagi struggled under the high ball all night. Cobbo’s handling woes extended to the other end of the field when he spilled a golden opportunity to score when the ball bounced past an overly laconic Brian To’o. Both have bright futures in the Maroon jersey but Billy Slater will need to be a coach of tremendous faith to stick with both in a decider.
Perhaps most surprising was Queensland’s ill discipline. After getting the so-called rub of the green in the opener, they were unlikely to benefit from many close calls, particularly around slowing down the ruck. Their cynical tactics on their own line were almost certain to meet with stern action from referee Ashley Klein and that came to a head two minutes out from half-time when Felise Kaufusi was sin-binned on the back of repeated ruck infringements. Queensland led 12-8 at the time but the binning saw them concede on half-time and lose control of the momentum in the opening of the second half.
This is to take nothing away from the Blues. Brad Fittler made the necessary adjustments both at the selection table and tactically. He wielded a big axe after Game 1 but was proven correct. Matt Burton had one of the all-time great debuts. Trbojevic was the Blues’ best forward after being recalled. Angus Crichton was another to impress after missing out in the opener. Api Koroisau was understatedly superb in the opening half hour of the match, allowing Cleary to operate at his most comfortable. Cleary, of course, was the star, taking full advantage of the domination through the middle in a signature performance.
Queensland coach Billy Slater enjoyed all the plaudits after a sublime win in the series opener but the rookie coach is now under intense pressure with the Maroons now a notable underdog heading into a home decider. He simply cannot abide some of the missed tackling and that will put the positions of Nanai and Gagai, in particular, under intense scrutiny. Wingers Cobbo and Taulagi will do well to retain their positions. It is unclear what Josh Papalii is offering at this stage with limited playing time in both games to date.
The positive for Queensland though is that their failings were of fundamentals. They are easy to identify. They should be relatively easy to fix. They will need to and quickly if they are to be any hope in the decider.