Match Report: Fifita stars as Blues smash MaroonsPlayer Ratings: How New South Wales faredPlayer Ratings: How Queensland fared
This promised to be a strange hole-in- the-donut kind of Origin, more noteworthy for absences than the thing in itself.
New South Wales’ pre-match favouritism owed less to the 34 players who were on the field than to four Queenslanders – Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Matt Scott and Billy Slater – who were not. The build-up was marked by a lack: of rats, of filth, of ticket sales. The match was initiated by silence for the lost Queensland policeman Brett Forte. In the context of the series, this night was merely a trigger for what would happen next: for both teams, losing would mean the end of two or three Origin careers.
There was an emptiness waiting for someone to fill. These absences were matters of bluff and indirection. NSW came to Brisbane with immense confidence based on something other than results. Queensland came with some out-of- form players, a comfort in underdoggery and an earned aura. Whose disguise was more convincing?
Enter rugby league. Substance reasserted itself against the void. Dylan Napa and the unquestionably substantial Josh Papalii hurtled into a Blue wall. Illusions were replaced by collisions. Aaron Woods, Andrew Fifita and Tyson Frizell replied in kind, and not with kindness.
The contest between substance and absence decides these matches. In the seventh minute, there was the ghostly Fifita that Nate Myles went to tackle, as opposed to the actual Fifita who slipped by and set up James Maloney for the opening try. For the first 20 minutes, the penalties and dropped balls that did not occur, the stoppages that did not slow the game down, allowed the game to cascade faster and faster, unobstructed by workaday NRL mistakes and the ritual tweets of over-zealous refereeing.
It was soon apparent that these absences were producing a game of the highest calibre. Every player, on both sides, came with his best – but how long could he sustain it?
The game entered its second quarter with a new set of absences: the supercolliders Napa, Myles, Woods and Fifita all taken off, fatigue enlarging the spaces on Lang Park. Cameron Smith put his outside backs through a Jarryd Hayne-shaped hole before Blake Ferguson jumped for an aerial ball that was not there, instead of the one Corey Oates was catching.
Queensland were back in it until, in perhaps the pivotal moment, Mitchell Pearce’s non-kick on the fifth tackle sparked a move that he was able to finish.
As the second half unfolded, again the absences were telling: cognition from Pearce and Anthony Milford, sending both playmakers off the field. And then finally it was an emptiness in Maroon. Not enough tacklers, not enough time.
Like a sculpture chipped out of a block, what was taken away ultimately revealed what was undeniably present. The NSW confidence was not a magic trick, but belief based on a solid mass of skill and spirit. History belongs to those who turn up. Long after the absentees are forgotten, this match will leave memories of a rampant Fifita leading a gang of equals who came and came and came until Queensland melted away. Perhaps, looking forward, certain moments in the scoreless final quarter will be the most significant.
Smith implored his men to fight back and score the last points. But the flying James Tedesco became a retaining wall of defence who denied Queensland access twice in a minute and might as well have been a forcefield across his own try-line. Josh Dugan’s final slap on the ball could have been a slap in Queensland’s face. Boyd Cordner, quietly effective in every way, inserted himself between ball and line. Queensland did not get that final try.
And that last stanza produced perhaps the most poignant dressing-room shot in Origin history: the long maligned Pearce embracing his father Wayne in triumph ??? with 25 minutes still to go. Against Queensland. At Lang Park. That wasn’t nothing. That was something.
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