NSW 16 Queensland 12 (Series tied 1-1)
THIS was deja vu, just with blue this time. So much of a classic Origin encounter bore resemblances to the first clash of the series. But on this occasion, the key decisions - the sin-binning of Queensland halfback Cooper Cronk and a contentious video referee call a few minutes later - went the Blues' way. The other significant differences? Todd Carney came alive when it counted, and the Blues dug like they rarely have before, making the five-eighth's work worth the wait.
Coach Ricky Stuart could have dropped Carney after game one. Ghosts of NSW past might have done just that. And after the five-eighth showed some nerves in the first half, Stuart might have been wondering why he didn't. But Carney is one of those players who is capable of turning a game on a single play.
State of Origin II
Todd Carney celebrates with Blues supporters after the game. Photo: Anthony Johnson
Carney got himself back into the game - then was dragged out of it - by Cronk. But Cronk was dismissed for 10 minutes. By the time he returned, the match had turned. Just a minute after the decision - allowing Carney to level the scores with a penalty - Carney brushed off Ashley Harrison and swept downfield, finding fullback Brett Stewart.
After officiating had dominated the fall-out from game one to such an extent, it was predictable that the Blues would get a 50-50 call - and a significant one - in their favour. It came when halfback Johnathan Thurston was ruled to have stripped the ball from Blues winger Jarryd Hayne; Josh Morris picked up the crumbs and scored.
And so after dominating the match for so long, and somehow trailing at half-time, the Blues suddenly occupied more than just the moral high ground. They led and led well. The Maroons, who are so at home when their opponents feel comfortable, hit back as they invariably do. Greg Inglis scored and the Blues were nervous. But they held firm; Michael Jennings somehow forced the ball out of Brent Tate's grasp when the winger was about to fall over the line. It could have all been so different too.
For a while this looked like the twin brother of game one; NSW dominance but not able to make it count. They led from the front, and did so from the beginning. The NSW defence arrived en masse for their side's first defensive effort of the night. Maroons No.1 Billy Slater had been in the right spot to take Carney's kick on the full, yet they worked Slater over to the point where the ball appeared to be squeezed out of his grasp. The officials waved play on.
In game one. For all the spit and grunt and grit, the Blues could not take full advantage on the scoreboard. The Blues were hustling and harassing, but winning between the two 20-metre lines is pointless when, well, the team. They eventually scored, when Brett Stewart grounded the ball despite the presence of Slater - who, to continue the similarities, was finding the ball slippery - and Thurston. Carney, again, missed the conversion from about the same spot as his first in game one. He was finding it difficult to get involved in the game, and again could not even rely on his right boot for some comfort.
It was, somehow, more brutal than the first encounter. Players were going down and struggling to get up; first Brent Tate, then Paul Gallen, then Slater …
Cronk's kicking game was keeping his team in it. The Melbourne player, instead of following Jack Gibson's old advice of kicking it to the seagulls, was instead kicking it to the corner posts. And more often than not, he was finding them, pinning the Blues. And then Cronk, who was far more involved than he had been in game one, suddenly made them pay.
He hoisted the ball, high enough to get the doubts in Akuila Uate's head bubbling away, and when the winger's leg finally twitched to signal than he would make a play for the ball, it was too late. The ball bounced, Ashley Harrison was first to it and prop Ben Hannant slid over next to the left post.
Their heads dropped, but the Blues would prevail. A decider awaits.
NSW 16 (B Stewart 2, J Morris tries; T Carney 2 goals) bt QUEENSLAND 12 (B Hannant, G Inglis tries; J Thurston 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referees: Tony Archer, Ben Cummins. Crowd: 83,110.