Blue dilemma, Maroons’ new hero: Where Origin was won and lost
It might not be as good as 1995 (yet!) but Queensland have breathed life into the State of Origin series with a boilover 18-14 victory over New South Wales in Game One at the Adelaide Oval.
With just seven days to go until Origin II and limited options due to the smaller squads, the Blues will be scrambling to make amends and keep their quest for three straight series wins alive.
As preparation gears up for the showdown at ANZ Stadium, here's where Origin I was won and lost.
1) TOO CLEVER BY HALF
Daly Cherry-Evans winning man of the match was a curious call - the Queensland skipper struggled to provide much direction in the first half and while he steadied the ship in the second and landed some crucial goals it was far from a vintage display.
Had the Blues converted their early lead into victory it would have been Cherry-Evans who bore the brunt of the criticism, but instead the knives come out for Nathan Cleary and Luke Keary.
Bashing the halves after an Origin loss has been the fashion for 40 years, and Cleary and Keary were not the sole reason for the Blues' loss, but with Cody Walker freeing up the attack when he did come on in the final quarter there are questions that need to be asked.
Keary is in an unusual position - his many accolades and accomplishments mean he'll get little of the slack usually afforded to Origin debutants. After all, he's a three-time premiership winner with a Clive Churchill Medal and some Australian Test jerseys to his name.
He isn't supposed to have the teething problems we usually associate with a half's maiden voyage in Origin. But a debut is still a debut, and the Roosters five-eighth looked busy yet failed to land a killer blow as the vaunted Blues left edge failed to fire a shot. No less than Andrew Johns was claiming the Blues might look for Walker for Origin II, so even if Keary retains his spot he'll be under a mountain of pressure.
Nathan Cleary is in a different boat. With memories of his tough night in the grand final no doubt still fresh in his mind, the Penrith halfback had a solid start and went to the line well for Addo-Carr's first try but his lack of creativity hurt NSW.
After six matches in sky blue, Cleary is yet to record a try, a try assist, a line break or a line break assist. Cleary himself has conceded in the past that raw creation is not his strong suit compared to the likes of Keary or Walker - he's an out and out organiser - but it's still a poor return for a half of his calibre.
Cleary's retention for Origin II feels certain - there's no other halfback in the squad - but he needs a big game and he needs it soon, regardless of what happened in the grand final. Even though he's already been part of a winning series, once a player has a reputation for struggling in Origin it can be almost impossible to scrub away - just ask Mitchell Pearce.
2) LEGEND OF ORIGIN GAGAI GROWS
Dane Gagai had a good year for South Sydney, his best in some time. He scored 11 tries, the most he's ever snagged in a season, and Wayne Bennett understood the former Knight was better suited to the wing than the centres as it allowed him to boost his workrate more easily. He's a very good club player, certainly, and sometimes he's even better than that.
But put a Maroon jersey on Gagai and he becomes superhuman, a breaker of tackles, a defender's nightmare, a destroyer of worlds who can be at wing or centre and still be the best player on the field. He finished with the most metres (120 from 13) runs and tackle busts (three) of any Queensland outside back.
Perhaps this was not the equal of Gagai's man-of-the-match performance in Origin I last year, when he scored a double (including a length of the field intercept try) and ran for more than 200 metres. But given he was switched to centre just moments before kick-off after Brenko Lee went down it's just as impressive.
When Queensland were floundering early, Gagai could be relied upon for some strong metres down the right edge. When the Maroons needed a bit of strike, they could always look to Gagai. When the rest of the rookie back five needed to be shown the way, Gagai was there, and when the Maroons got a sniff of the lead it was Gagai who put them in front by beating Jack Wighton all ends up and putting Xavier Coates over. When Daniel Tupou looked tryline bound after an offload from Wighton it was Gagai who denied the Roosters flyer.
The gap between Gagai's Origin form and his club form is not as great as it once was, but the Rabbitohs still might need to switch their colours to maroon and green. If it means they get Origin Gagai every week it'll be worth it.
3) BATTLE OF THE BIG FELLAS PROVES CRITICAL
The fans were treated to a mighty forward battle early - the young Queenslanders needed Josh Papalii to show them the way and he did, ripping off eight runs for 62 metres inside the opening 30 minutes amid able support from Christian Welch.
But the best prop in the game was well matched by Daniel Saifiti (eight runs for 63 metres in the first half) and Junior Paulo (seven runs for 59 metres) - the scoreboard might have been in the Blues' favour at halftime, but the forward battle was on the edge of a knife.
In the end it was not Papalii, the best forward on the field, who turned the game or Welch, who was so strong in the grand final, but debutant Lindsay Collins and Titans forward Jai Arrow.
With Jaydn Su'A on an edge after the hook came out for Coen Hess and Ben Hunt already on as a quasi lock forward (a role he filled well), it was on Collins and Arrow to match it with Blues trio Payne Haas, Jake Trbojevic and Angus Crichton.
Outnumbered and outgunned, Collins and Arrow were magnificent. They battened down the hatches until half-time and helped get Queensland back in the game in the opening 15 minutes of the second half - Collins was excellent in attack, using every inch of his considerable frame to run for 78 metres in the second half while Arrow's intensity in defence blunted the impact of Haas and Crichton with the ball.
By the time Bennett sent the starters back out the game had turned completely. Forwards don't get the credit they deserve most of the time and bench forwards even more so, but the role of Collins and Arrow in turning the tide can't be underestimated.
Fittler's use of his middles was curious to say the least. While Murray's injury threw a spanner in the works, Paulo's second stint was less than 10 minutes. Given how effective the Parramatta man was when he got on the field it was a strange call from the Blues brains trust.
4) MAROONS UNCOVER A NEW MOGG
Sometimes, Queensland just find them. They find Adam Mogg or John Doyle or John Buttigeig or Josh Hannay, they find players who are far from household names and they throw them in against the Blues stars and somehow, someway, they get the job done.
Finding rough diamonds was a huge part of the Maroons' success before they won eight series in a row with the greatest team in Origin history. They haven't had to do it in a while, because they have had so much quality to choose from. There's no need to scour the league for Queenslanders when your team is so stacked that someone like Cooper Cronk is flat out getting a run off the bench.
But those legends are all gone now. Queensland are back to where they were before 2006 - there's a few superstars, a few guys who might be one day and the gaps get filled by whoever can fill them.
Kurt Capewell is now one of those guys. The robust Panther has been on the periphery of Origin selection for some time but would not have been in consideration as a centre were it not for the spate of injuries the Maroons have suffered. But in he went, and he shone. One could argue the game turned entirely when he beat Clint Gutherson, the Dally M fullback of the year if you don't mind, all ends up and poked a kick inside for AJ Brimson to score and kick off the Queensland comeback.
That wasn't Capewell's only moment of glory - his physicality on both sides of the ball made him hard for Gutherson to handle and he'll be an automatic selection for Origin II if fit. Even though his lateral movement was exploited for both of Addo-Carr's tries, Capewell has created his own slice of Origin folklore. He can be the Adam Mogg for a new generation - who among us could ask for more?
5) MAKESHIFT OPTIONS PROVE A QUANDARY
It's one of the oldest dilemma's in the Origin book - should you pick your best 17 players and try and find spots for them all? Or do you pick 17 specialists?
The Blues tried for a touch of the former in shoehorning Clint Gutherson and Jack Wighton into the centres, a position they have both played at club level but not for many years. Nobody can doubt the quality of Gutherson or Wighton, and Queensland weren't rolling out Mal Meninga and Gene Miles themselves - before Dane Gagai's late switch they were selecting Brenko Lee (a big improver this year, but only 12 months removed from almost being out of the league) and Capewell (a back-rower).
But it was Wighton and Gutherson who looked far less comfortable than their counterparts - Wighton struggled to contain Gagai even when the Blues were dominant. The reigning Dally M Medallist can be a defensive force, but he struggled to round up Gagai more than once and was beaten cold in the lead up to the Coates try. He got through plenty of work to be sure, but it was less than what we've come to expect from Wighton.
Likewise, Gutherson had some nice touches - he showed good, fast hands to throw the final pass for both Addo-Carr's tries - but his lack of understanding also popped up more than once. That's entirely understandable given he hasn't played centre for two full seasons but his miss on Capewell, when the bigger man just brushed him aside, is less forgivable.
Fittler has been highly complimentary of Gutherson's contribution to camp and stuck by Wighton after his tough debut last year. Zac Lomax and Stephen Crichton both shape as Blues players of the future but given their inexperience at this level it seems likely Fittler will stick with the manufactured options for Origin II. Whether it pays off next time remains to be seen.
Originally published as Blue dilemma, Maroons' new hero: Where Origin was won and lost