BLUES REGAIN SUPREMACY IN ORIGIN CLASSIC

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There’s been so many truly great State of Origin games that slapping the ‘one of the best ever’ tag one can usually be taken with a grain of salt.

But Game 2, 2018 at ANZ Stadium deserves to stand alongside the very best Origin football has produced in its 39 seasons – an absolute classic by every measure.

And New South Wales, so often on the wrong side of the scoreboard at the end of the genuinely iconic interstate clashes, regained the shield for the first time in four years – and just the second time in 13 series – with a gutsy 18-14 triumph.

The rub of the green did not quite favour the Blues as it did in the series opener; they overcame plenty of adversity to win it.

An early double-digit deficit, a trademark late Queensland surge, and top-shelf performances from Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and phenomenal debutant Kalyn Ponga were not enough to stop Brad Fittler’s ‘Baby Blues’ from achieving an emotion-charged victory.

The home side were forced to defend their tenuous four-point lead for most of the final 10 minutes with only 12 men after the sin-binning of James Roberts. But the game’s Origin classic status had already been sealed.

The sellout crowd in Sydney was treated to one of the great first halves of Origin football.

Slater’s return to the Queensland No.1 jumper had an immediate and monumental effect, creating three early tryscoring chances that were narrowly – and somewhat luckily – shut down by NSW.

The latter saw Dane Gagai denied by the barest of margins by the Bunker, his thigh grazing the sideline millimetres before he forced the ball. Only Josh Addo-Carr’s pace stopped Gagai from strolling in.

Valentine Holmes and Gagai scored the Maroons’ tries in Game 1, and the prolific wing duo each landed on the scoreboard again before the 20-minute mark – with Slater prominent in both tries.

Holmes scored his sixth Origin try in just four games after slick hands from Slater and Greg Inglis and a poor defensive read from Tom Trbojevic.

Gagai then kept up his try-a-game strike-rate in his ninth appearance, palming off Addo-Carr following neat inside work from Melbourne Storm duo Slater and Will Chambers.

Holmes converted from the sideline for a 10-0 scoreline.

But Addo-Carr atoned by jinking his way over for the Blues’ first try in the 25th minute from a James Maloney long ball.

Then a real doozy for the trainspotters: Boyd Cordner was bravely – but correctly – awarded a penalty try after being taken out by Ben Hunt while chasing a Maloney grubber to the in-goal.

Maloney edge the Blues in front 12-10 with the gift conversion.

The scoring highlights were punctuated by punishing defence typical of the Origin genre, with Dylan Napa, David Klemmer, Boyd Cordner and Josh McGuire the chief hitmen.

Queensland coach Kevin Walters injected Ponga off the bench in between NSW’s tries, but it was the boom debutant’s willing defence that featured more prominently before the break than his trademark attacking genius.

The game opened up virtually straight after the resumption with both sides finding space and half-breaks.

The Blues made it 18 unanswered points when James Tedesco took an astute short-side gamble on the last tackle near Queensland’s line. Latrell Mitchell – relatively quiet in attack to that point – gave Chambers some unwanted Game 1 déjà vu by running over the top of his opposite and slamming the ball down.

But the Maroons refused to panic and Blues errors started to creep in. Chambers regained some bragging rights by brushing off Addo-Carr and beating Mitchell to the corner for a vital 63rd-minute try.

At 18-14 it was a case of who would blink first – and a searing Ponga break sent the Blues into crisis mode.

Tedesco cut the flying youngster down just short of the try-line but an unnecessary professional foul from James Roberts on the next play left NSW short a player for all but the last 90 seconds of the game.

Atrocious kicking options and execution from Ben Hunt, brilliant cover defence from Nathan Cleary and sloppy play from Chambers on both sides of the ball conspired against the Maroons’ one-man advantage, however.

Pure guts from the youthful Blues got the job done in the championship minutes. One of the state’s greatest moments, fittingly in front of 82,223 fans at their headquarters.

Captain Cordner, who missed the latter stages after head-butting Napa’s hip, was a popular man of the match recipient.

If Queensland will want to remember this heartbreaker for two things, it will the masterful performance of retiring legend Slater and the memorable debut of a future Origin great in Ponga.

Remarkably, the Newcastle fullback played over 50 minutes in the middle of the field, racking up 26 tackles and 78 metres. The Maroons’ left side of Inglis and Holmes was also outstanding, combining for 388 metres.

The fact Tedesco topped the Blues’ run metres count with a modest 128 summed up how hard they had to graft for the win. Cordner and Jake Trbojevic were the only other players to reach triple-figures – but the defensive stats were magnificent across the board.

The composure of Maloney and Cleary – particularly when measured against the hapless Hunt – was crucial.

The result takes the sting out of the July 11 dead-rubber in Brisbane somewhat, but on the quality of the football produced in 160 minutes so far in this series it remains essential viewing.

 

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