There’s no such thing as a dead rubber in State of Origin. Not to Queensland.
And there should be no such questioning of the Maroons culture in future in the view of captain Daly Cherry-Evans and coach Paul Green after their 20-18 game-three boilover on Wednesday night.
As critics lined up to deliver their last rites, a desperate Maroons side finally came to life to sabotage NSW’s hopes of their first series sweep in 21 years.
After leading 8-6 at half-time, Queensland held on for victory on the Gold Coast to inject some much-needed pride in the Maroons jersey with hooker Ben Hunt scoring a second-half double on his way to man of the match honours.
Latrell Mitchell had a chance to lock up the scores in the 78th minute but his bold 50-metre penalty kick fell short as the “Queenslander” chant reverberated around Cbus Super Stadium.
The Maroons then appeared to vent their frustration on NSW on the stroke of full-time with a melee breaking out, resulting in Blues prop Junior Paulo being placed on report.
The question ahead of game three was not whether a dominant NSW would win, it was by how much.
The once-mighty Maroons juggernaut which had been the Ampol State of Origin benchmark by winning 11 of 12 series, including eight straight, were on their knees.
Queensland were set to become the first Maroons outfit to lose all three Origin games on home soil after a record breaking 50-6 loss in Townsville and 26-0 humbling in game two – the first time they had been held scoreless at spiritual home Suncorp Stadium.
Then there were the off-field controversies.
Queensland’s leadership and culture were questioned in a disastrous series that included Ronaldo Multialo’s eligibility drama and capped by Jai Arrow’s exit just days before Origin III for a team hotel biosecurity bubble breach.
However, the knives out for Green may be shelved for now after conjuring an upset against a NSW side that can still lay claim to being one of the Blues’ greatest.
“I like what we’ve started. The series didn’t pan out how we all hoped, but I said through the week the future for Queensland is bright. We’ve just got to scrap away until some of those guys get a bit of experience under their belt,” Green said.
“Particularly, our culture was questioned [but] I think you don’t win Origin games like that if you don’t have character and you don’t stick together.
“You can talk about it all you like, but it’s what you do out on the field that counts and I thought we showed that tonight.”
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Cherry-Evans echoed those sentiments: “It’s not ideal when your culture gets questioned. Like I said during the week, these things only happen when you open yourself up to it by losing footy games.
“So the best thing we could have done tonight is win. Now that we’ve done that, hopefully we can show that that’s off the back of a lot of hard work and some pretty good culture.”
They may have fallen at the final hurdle after a match featuring three tries apiece but NSW still technically pulled off the most dominant series victory with a 68-point difference over the hosts, surpassing the Blues class of 2000’s margin of 62 – their last whitewash.
But that may be little consolation to Blues mentor Brad Fittler after NSW threatened to break Queensland hearts again on Wednesday night.
NSW reeled in a surprise half-time deficit to kick ahead 12-8 when Jack Wighton sold a dummy and darted over in the 49th minute after lead-up work by Isaah Yeo and rookie playmaker Mitch Moses.
But the Maroons responded when Dragons playmaker-turned-hooker Hunt burrowed over from dummy half to regain the lead 14-12 in the 57th minute.
He was over again in the 64th to make it 20-12 and suddenly long-suffering Maroons fans were daring to dream.
NSW hardly put up the white flag with debutant Api Koroisau pouncing on a Mitch Moses kick in the 69th minute to cut the deficit to just 20-18 and ensure a thrilling finish.
Despite NSW fans appearing to outnumber the locals in the 26,307-strong crowd, Queensland led 8-6 at half-time after at last matching NSW’s intent.
The hosts drew first blood with a fourth-minute penalty, taking the lead for the first time this series.
However, normal service appeared to resume when the Maroons buckled under NSW’s weight of possession as Latrell Mitchell stepped Dane Gagai and Kalyn Ponga to crash over in the 10th minute.
The Maroons thought they had crossed for just their second try of the series when Valentine Holmes hammered rookie Blues No.7 Mitch Moses and gathered the spilt ball to dive under the posts, only to be disallowed for knocking on in the process.
They weren’t to be denied in the 18th when Cameron Munster let Tino Fa’asuamaleaui loose, setting up debutant winger Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to score in a dream start for the 19-year-old Cowboy.
The only sour note for Queensland was winger Holmes going down with a shoulder injury on the stroke of half-time.
Green confirmed he had damaged his AC joint but did not give a prognosis on how long he would be out.