Queensland pivot Daly Cherry-Evans. Photo: Jonathan Carroll
Mal Meninga believes Daly Cherry-Evans will emerge a stronger, better footballer after the Maroons halfback endured one of the most difficult weeks of his career, culminating in Queensland's loss to a jubilant NSW on Wednesday night in Sydney.
Cherry-Evans battled a knee injury up to game day and looked hampered at times during the match as he was belted black and blue by NSW, who showed no mercy when it came to targeting the Manly playmaker.
Not only that, the historic vision of Trent Hodkinson scoring the try that broke the eight-year duck features Cherry-Evans ghosting across as his opposite number throws the dummy and skips over the tryline. It is already been burnt in his memory.
"That’s a moment I will never forget," Cherry-Evans said. "Obviously he ran straight past me, so that’s something I have to deal with. Well done to Trent. He’s had a terrific series so far."
Cherry-Evans' knee took on almost mythical proportions during the Maroons build-up. He doesn't crave the limelight at the best of times, so the huge focus on his playing prospects wasn't a dream preparation by any stretch.
"I think it was always going to happen," he said. "The media build-up on it was unfortunate, but it is what it is. They [NSW] gave me attention but I wouldn’t have played if I didn’t feel as thought I could get through that. We didn’t have an ideal prep, but I thought we did really well with the cards we were dealt."
Cherry-Evans has had a torrid run in this series, being thrust into the contest early in game one after Cooper Cronk broke his arm then trying to prepare for game two with a banged-up knee. He rose gingerly from the first contact of the night and, despite almost scoring a try off a chip and chase, didn't appear to be moving or attacking the line with same fluency as he does for the Sea Eagles.
It was always a calculated gamble but Queensland selectors clearly felt 75 per cent of Cherry-Evans was preferable to 100 per cent of Ben Hunt, Brisbane's impressive young No.7 but an Origin rookie who would have had to step up on the biggest stage.
Cherry-Evans has had a meteoric rise through the NRL, winning a premiership in his first season and making his way into the Maroons squad last year as a bench utility. But this Origin series may have presented a hurdle he has yet to leap.
Meninga says the physical punishment Cherry-Evans took and the disappointment of losing the series could be the making of him as a future Origin star and the man to lead the next generation of Queensland players.
"He’s one of the premier players in the competition," Meninga said. "He’s going to get better, not worse, from that experience, as a player and as an individual. You learn more from defeat, I believe. So from a character point of view, it does hurt. I’ve been in that situation many times, more times than these blokes. Daly will become a better player because of it."
Cherry-Evans will be hoping to get a clean bill of health in the lead-up to the dead rubber at Suncorp Stadium as he tries to produce the breakout game that stamps him as an Origin heavyweight.
"I’ll go away, I’ll learn from this," he said. "It will be hard to forget, that’s for sure, but it will make me a better player and I can only hope I put myself in that position in the future."