Maroons beat Blues on bell again
The four playmaking stars who have punctuated a decade of dominance for Queensland reunited at ANZ Stadium to somehow conjure a remarkable, come-from-behind 18-16 win to square the 2017 Origin series.
The ageing Maroons and their dynasty looked shot to bits when the Blues raced out to a 16-6 lead with two quick tries midway through the first half but their new-look forward pack found a way to match it with their power-packed opponents right throughout a tense second 40 in which the Blues were held scoreless.
Queensland found first one try to make things tense and then, right near the death, a second try with Johnathan Thurston's ice-cold sideline conversion stealing the lead against the odds with three minutes to play.
The Blues monstered their opponents in the 20 minutes before halftime but looked frantic and nervous in their scoreless second 40 as they could feel the breath on their necks of their long-time tormenters coming for them.
The ageless Billy Slater was in everything in his first Origin for two years, defusing everything at the back, scheming in attack, lurking around the ruck, supporting every play.
Thurston proved he had what the Maroons were missing in Game One; despite looking hampered by a shoulder injury for much of the game he was the perfect foil for Cooper Cronk who was himself far improved from Game One.
The Queensland middle forwards, and most notably Josh McGuire and Dylan Napa, found a way to match the Blues up the middle.
The Blues now face the unenviable task of heading up to Suncorp for a Game Three decider in hostile territory against a Queensland side with their tails up and ready to send Johnathan Thurston into representative retirement with one last win.
The Blues failed to capitalise on their early dominance and their game management in the second half was found wanting with too many rushed or frantic plays.
Of everyone it was their most experienced player in Jarryd Hayne who came up with the most questionable options in that period but the halves too, despite offering plenty in attack – especially in the first half – who needed to command the ball and get the team to the right parts of the field to shut the game down.
The start of the contest was more stop-start than the previous, frantic Game One opener with debutant Valentine Holmes knocking on from his very first touch in Origin and James Maloney gifting two silly penalties in the opening 10 minutes to put the Blues under pressure.
The second of those proved expensive with a left-side shift allowing Darius Boyd in the centre position to pop the perfect pass out to Holmes, who capitalised on opposite man Blake Ferguson coming in to tiptoe down the touchline. The bunker couldn't find conclusive evidence of Holmes's foot scraping the chalk and the try was awarded.
In almost a mirror image of the way the Maroons opened the scoring the Blues hit back, cashing in on consecutive penalties to get in range before a nice sequence of passing saw Tedesco pass for Hayne to crash over in the left corner.
Right after both coaches interchanged their respective pairs of starting front rowers, Maloney shot past Tim Glasby who was fresh on the field and from open space fired a pass out to Brett Morris to put the Blues up 10-6.
The Blues went back to back when Jake Trbojevic slipped a sublime inside ball to send Tedesco screaming into space and Mitch Pearce supported to score the try that threatened to blow the game open at 16-6.
The Maroons launched a final assault on the Blues' line in the shadows of half time and turned down a free two points from a penalty with 30 second to go in a desperate search for a vital try.
They could have, and possibly should have scored on two separate occasions in those 30 seconds but a pair of momentous try-savers – the first from Trbojevic on Cronk next to the posts, the second from Dugan on Morgan out wide – preserved the 10-point lead heading into the break.
After being swamped for much of the second 20 minutes of the match the Maroons muscled up after half time, improving their line speed and rediscovering some sting in defence through a tense feeling out period.
They desperately needed to be first to score in the second half to make a game of it and their prayers were answered when Josh McGuire pushed his way into open space and the Blues fell off half a dozen tackles as a series of offloads finished with Gagai scoring in the corner.
Thurston's sideline conversion ensured it was game on at 16-12 with 25 minutes to play.
There were some vague signs of panic from the Blues as Queensland threatened to steal the match; a rushed tip-on from Hayne went into touch, Graham rushed up on a tackle he shouldn't have to leave a hole.
Despite NSW leading on the scoreboard the momentum was firmly with the Maroons. Things got worse for Laurie Daley's men when James Tedesco was forced off for a head injury assessment, which brought Jack Bird into the game and shifted Josh Dugan to fullback.
Chambers – who had smashed Hayne with a big tackle in the first half – went once too many rushing up on Ferguson and found himself in the concussion bin with Tedesco.
The signs were still poor for the Blues: Cronk stepped past a flat-footed Fifita into space, Hayne spilled a pushed pass after some frantic offloads.
The game-breaking play came in the 77th minute; NSW couldn't hang on to Cronk's cross-field bomb and handed the Maroons a scrum from 10 metres out. A shift left was unsuccessful but a shift right saw Slater's pace create headaches and his deft pass onto Morgan (at centre for Chambers) who flicked the perfect offload back in for Gagai to level the scores.
Thurston's sideline conversion was never doing anything other than curling back between the sticks to claim a remarkable lead and send his teammates into raptures.
The job wasn't quite finished as NSW claimed the ball from a short restart but the Queensland defence held firm to send the series to a decider.
Queensland 18 (Gagai 2, Holmes tries; Thurston 3 goals) defeated NSW 16 (Hayne, Morris, Pearce tries; Maloney 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Half time: NSW 16-6. Crowd 82,259.