Queensland's system has NSW searching
It was a gripping State of Origin series. The result was still in the balance right up until the final play in the decider. Only when NSW's long-range field goal attempt flew wide of the mark in the dying seconds could the Queenslanders raise their arms in triumph, knowing they were about to head off on their seventh consecutive victory lap.
The three games in 2012 saw eight-point, four-point and one-point winning margins decide the three games. In the end, Queensland scored only five more points than NSW over the course of three epic encounters.
You couldn't ask for any more of these wonderful players.
Gutted ... the Blues after the full-time whistle. Photo: Getty Images
On the surface, one could say there was absolutely nothing between the states other than the bounce of the ball and the rub of the green. However, if you dig a little deeper, it's obvious there are still some areas where this Queensland outfit does things a little better than their southern opponents. The gap is definitely closing, but the Maroons still hold a mortgage on the big-occasion polish, subtleties and finesse needed to win big-occasion matches. I will come back to this in a moment.
Firstly, though, the accolades must go to Mal Meninga and his team for an astonishing run of seven consecutive series victories. After 25 years of Origin football, there was not a struck match between the two states in series won, games won and total points scored. Suddenly, the Meninga era sprouted wings and produced a period of domination few would have thought possible. From humble beginnings back in 2006 where they were fighting for credibility, Queensland has created a dynasty of unrivalled professionalism and perfection. One can only stand and applaud. Well done.
For NSW, I believe coach Ricky Stuart deserves enormous congratulations both for the way he has prepared this team for their on-field battles and for the way he has promoted the games off the field for the good of rugby league. Record television ratings and sell-out crowds tell the story of his endeavours. He has very bravely put himself out there and his players have responded with highly-spirited and courageous performances against the champion Queensland outfit. He came so close to victory. That's probably the most painful way to lose; but it will steel Ricky and his troops for future campaigns. I believe the hard work will be rewarded.
The remaining gap that needs to be filled by NSW comes in the construction of their attacking football. Over the course of the series, I always had the impression Queensland looked more organised and dangerous in attack than the Blues. As a result, the NSW defence always looked to be working that little bit harder and under a bit more pressure. Over 80 minutes of intense football, this takes its toll.
Mind you, it is easy to see why this would be the case. Queensland's playmakers - Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis - have spent years together developing their knowledge and combinations under the masterful coaching of Craig Bellamy at the Melbourne Storm. Johnathan Thurston has spent so much time with these guys training and playing together in Queensland and Australian camps that he is in complete sync with their talents. He is also a champion; which certainly helps.
All of these guys are intense students of the game. This is important. They know the modern game of rugby league inside out. They know their opponents as well as they know themselves. Their combinations, plays and reactions, while carefully planned and rehearsed, enjoy the added dimension of instinct because they are acutely aware of what each other is thinking.
NSW simply can't match this familiarity at the moment. For a start, the current playmaking group of Robbie Farah, Mitchell Pearce, Todd Carney and Brett Stewart all come from different clubs with different philosophies on attacking football. It's hard to bring that all together in short-preparation representative camps.
Farah had an outstanding series and really came to the fore in the second half on Wednesday night, where he took ownership of NSW's fightback to produce two tries from perfectly-weighted attacking kicks. Farah has more to offer the team with his skills around the dummy half area, but the other NSW players are yet to respond to his ways.
Pearce is a tough, competitive, "bull-at-a-gate" style of halfback. You can easily fall in love with these qualities, but he needs more strategy and polish in his game to consistently succeed at this level.
Carney is an explosive individual performer in the club football arena. He can carve up the best of teams with his running game on a Sunday afternoon. However, apart from a few glimpses when Queensland were reduced to 12 men in game two, his playmaking runs throughout the series tended to go more sideways and backwards, providing little space for the outside fliers in the team.
They say Todd doesn't like to think too much about the game beforehand for fear of nerves or confusion. He just likes to play. I know he is a quality footballer, but the question remains whether such preparation will consistently stand up to the pressures of big-match football.
Brett Stewart's support play throughout the series was tremendous, but NSW rarely got him the ball on the run with options at his disposal. He followed the play. They didn't bring him into a playmaking role very often at all. The one time he did get good ball, he dummied and pushed his way over the line for the opening try in game two. He needs more of these opportunities.
These are not criticisms. They are merely observations. They highlight the difficulty NSW face in trying to compete with the obvious strengths and advantages enjoyed by the best Queensland team of all time.
Perhaps if Ricky Stuart could train his side together three times a week for 40 weeks a year to get ready, we could even the playing field in regards to the time together enjoyed by the Queensland playmaking combination. Unrealistic I know; but that's the huge head-start the Blues are conceding to the Maroons.
On the score of heart, courage and never-say-die attitude, though, coach Stuart has instilled a steely resolve in this NSW group of which all NSW fans can be proud.
Well done to both states. It was a truly great series and we can't wait to do it all again next year.