Nathan Cleary did not shine in the first two Origins but his importance to the NSW team was obvious early in game three when it became clear the Blues attack was a shadow of the team that piled on 76 points in the first two matches. Queensland were vastly improved in winning 20-18 and saving the state’s dignity but it was New South Wales who lost the match and the opportunity for a rare clean sweep.
There was a touch of hubris in selecting Jack Wighton and Mitchell Moses in the halves for the Blues. Brad Fittler spoke of the importance of chasing the sweep but his actions spoke far louder than his words. Selecting Wighton, who has been poor this year for a severely underperforming Raiders side, and Moses, who has traditionally struggled in big games and big moments, were arrogant selections.
The Blues had won the opening two games on a club combination that boasted a creative running five-eighth and an organising halfback with a brilliant kicking game. Souths pair Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds were the obvious replacements. Form dictated the Rabbitohs duo should play but Fittler opted for loyalty, that characteristic which cost the Blues so badly for a generation, plumping for bench player Wighton and his former Lebanon No 7 Moses.
The result was a disjointed, disconnected and dispiriting Blues attack. Wighton could not pass a ball. Moses looked scarily similar to maligned Blues No 7 Mitchell Pearce with a predictable and unthreatening kicking game. Centres Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell saw precious little clean ball compared to the opening two games. Trbojevic was a non-factor in the opening half and only inserted himself into the game when he started taking middle runs. Latrell Mitchell scored the opening try of the match but rarely saw much ball from a run-focussed Wighton, who left Mitchell estranged when free with minutes remaining.
Credit, of course, must go to Queensland. Despite a shambolic series of misdemeanours and blunders in the opening two games, the Maroons took to game three with significantly more energy and a far cleaner game plan.
Coach Paul Green certainly selected a far more threatening team. Kalyn Ponga was a far more potent fullback option than Valentine Holmes who, despite his own protestations, is a premier winger. The key selection call though was starting Ben Hunt at hooker. Not picked in the opener, Hunt was used off the bench in the second game before a man of the match showing in the third.
Hunt was magnificent on Wednesday night. His two tries were excellent and in the end decisive but it was the little things that stood him out. Hunt did not run a lot but was prepared to when the opportunity arose. He made 41 tackles. His two kicks were quality.
It was that heart, that Queensland spirit that was missing in the opening two games, that proved crucial. The Maroons seized on their opportunities but they did not get it all their own way. They had just 46% of the ball. They were beaten in kick return metres, post contact metres and tackle breaks. They had a slower play-the-ball speed. They missed more tackles and forced fewer dropouts.
It did not matter. When Queensland had a half-opportunity, they took it. New South Wales certainly did not, missing chance after chance on the back of a low-energy performance and an uncreative attack.
The impact referee Gerard Sutton had was again significant and underlined that Origin is officiated differently from the NRL – and that the crackdown on foul play has well and truly ended. There was a never-ending string of set restarts but there was never a threat of a sin bin. The 10 metres was small, if being generous. Most restarts were awarded early in sets.
While a dead rubber win is a dead rubber win, this meant plenty to not only Queensland but to the Origin concept. The Maroons did not lose the opening two games, they were decimated. It seemingly had the state turning on itself, desperately looking for a scapegoat in a manner rarely seen north of the Tweed before. The win and the series result will simmer tensions, release pressure and provide hope. There is something to grasp hope on in 2022. That is important.
New South Wales deservedly won the series. They left something special on the table though and that will sit with them for a long while.