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State of Origin: A New Era Starts

Have the Blues finally worked out how to get the better of their northern nemesis?

Hyperbole goes with rugby league like sleeve tats and a well-executed peptide plan, so it makes sense that the day after New South Wales’ biggest ever State of Origin win in Brisbane, we begin hastily speculating if last night’s result marks the beginning of something truly special: the end of Queensland’s decade-long dominance of the contest and the start of a Boyd Cordner-led reign, with his loyal disciples — Dugan, Maloney, Graham, Tedesco — with more games ahead of them than behind, settling in as members of “a team that picks itself”, where winning is a habit, where a handful of juniors are blooded into a culture of success each campaign and Loz Daley is heralded as the best coach Canberra ever produced, sticking it to his former halves partner, probable nemesis, Ricky Stuart, once and for all.

In the lead up to the game, focus centred almost solely on the healing powers of the Brisbane River’s magic water and whether future-immortal Johnathan Thurston would be able suit up. He didn’t. And while he wasn’t the only exclusion from the Maroon’s usual stable of assets (Greg Inglis’ game-turning unpredictability, Matt Scott’s front-line presence) his play-by-play organisation and occasional spark was noticably absent in the 28-4 drubbing.

Twinkle toed fill-in Anthony Milford might’ve made more of an impact in the game’s tail end as forward’s legs got heavy, had he not been carted off with a head injury, half-an-hour remaining. Similarly, was the excluded Billy Slater the missing x-factor; or is Billy Moore’s usual “Queenslander” blood-cry losing its relevance on the next crop; or is it time to give another one of the Walters boys a run in the coaching box; or should waterboy, Queensland legend — and previous surprise secret-weapon inclusion — Alfie Langer get a recall?

All questions that Camp QLD are currently mulling over, no doubt. But, arguably fruitless, as best of all (from a southern perspective) this wasn’t a game the Maroons simply threw way, it was one the Blues grabbed, with both hands, palmed off any and all challengers and dominated from whistle to siren.

More accurately, that’s exactly what runaway express train, Andrew Fifita, did.

Every inch offered, every slipped tackle, the frontline-enforcer took as a gift — starting just six minutes in when he mowed through the middle of the park like it was his own private model runway, beautiflly brutal and elegant as he dragged Maroon men along, before popping the pill out to Sharks teammate, Jim Maloney, for the opening four pointer, starting the onslaught and — more significantly — kicking off what would be a memorable man-of-the-match performance from the power forward who, until recently, was permanent-marked on League’s Shit List.

Because if there’s one thing rugby league loves more than over-hyping itself to the point of unavoidable disappointment, it’s a redemption story.

For the past few seasons, Fifita has featured in the press for all the wrong reasons. Most notoriously, last year’s public support for convicted “coward puncher” Kieran Loveridge, which drew widespread scorn from the rugby league-loving public. While refused a premature forgive-and-forget high-five during last year’s grand final — where despite scored the winning try he wasn’t crowned the Clive Churchill medalist — last night’s performance proved that the 2017 path to rugby league redemption is a mere short stroll.

Fifita was hardly alone though in crushing the Cane Toads though and alongside some remarkable team stats (92% completion rate, 4 errors), across the board NSW showed ticker not seen from the side since The Chief was leading barrelling barges through the middle, Rod “All Heart” Wishart was putting his beautiful-body-on-the-line with corner-post leaps and Fredrick Fitler was letting his footwork do the talking, rather than his inane commentary. Last night, desperate defender, Tedesco was his scrappy try-stopping best at the back; Wade Graham and Maloney both picked up the playmaking duties with gusto following halfback Mitchell Pearce’s early exit (also for a head-knock, coincidentally at the same time as Milford, but a separate incident); and even Dugan — who for the most part, alongside Cruiser Comrade, Ferguson, looked a little limp in attack — managed to spoil a last minute Queensland consolation try, his unexpected lunge dislodging the ball from Guerra who was already over the tryline.

Queensland on the other — although getting through a near-equally impressive 83% of their sets — looked lost at times. Myles, while pulling on a nice, grubby face-rake on Hayne, was forcibly put back into his box by Fifita, Klemmer and Woods, managing only 63 metres in his eight runs across the game. A workload hardly picked up by others — debutant prop Dylan Napa, although aggressive early on, just got to a hundred metres himself, usual bench-spark, Sam Thaiday, managed just half that from his seven struts forward, while Captain Smith made just a measly nine metres from his three dummy half scoots. Boyd, often the wildcard for the Broncos, barely warrants a mention in any sort of game recount, such was his lack of memorable impact.

Overall, it was the pace of the game that defeated the northerners. Switching to a light-speed stalemate in the occasional lulls between linebreaks, rarely did the Blues look at all threatened by either the occasion or their opposition. The usual Maroon wall — of both the stands and the paddock — the one that has met, and crushed, them with such ease, on so many instances over the past ten years, just didn’t show up.

Right now, during this endorphin-induced hangover, it’s hard to imagine Queensland finding those missing 24 points when they line-up in three weeks time for the second duel. Thurston, the only of those absent even a chance at a return, remains a maybe. Likewise, swapping out Boyd for Billy — or any notable, knee-jerk reactionary line-up changes — seems unlikely, and distinctly out-of-character for the usual calm Queensland approach. But then again, as it would appear, these are no ordinary times.