IT is always darkest right before the dawn, and while the gloom surrounding Queensland’s State of Origin series loss will take some time to lift, there is no doubt a bright new era for the Maroons is peeping over the horizon.
NSW may have won just their second Origin series in 13 years with a 18-14 win in Origin II at ANZ Stadium but all is not lost for Queensland.
It capped off a dismal weekend for our representative teams, with the Queensland Women’s team losing their Origin match to NSW 16-10 on Friday night, the Queensland Residents losing their game 36-20 in the Sunday night Origin curtain-raiser.
The Maroons played with typical heart, with the result in doubt – as always – until the very final seconds on the clock.
They were crafty, dogged, determined too in equal measure, with the sheer physicality of Dylan Napa, the attacking brilliance of Billy Slater, Valentine Holmes and Dane Gagai, and the inspirational leadership of Greg Inglis all first class in defeat.
As brilliant as Inglis has been over so many years for Queensland, this may well be his finest hour in Maroon as the state’s 13th Origin captain.
Time and time again, like he did in Origin I at the MCG, Inglis produced special plays in attack and defence to try to inspire his team.
And his men responded, lifting in energy and intensity as they vainly fought to keep the series alive.
But for all of Inglis’ courage and leadership, he will now head to Suncorp Stadium on July 11 looking for his first victory as Queensland captain as the Maroons try to keep a dreaded Bluewash at bay.
NSW deserved their victory. But equally, Queensland did not deserve to lose, with a number of contentious decisions going against them through the match.
An over-turned opening try to Gagai and a penalty try to NSW captain Boyd Cordner – only the second in Origin history and first since Mal Meninga’s in 1981 – were chief among them.
The bitter taste of going 2-0 will be tough for Queensland fans to digest, after such a long period of success.
Critics before the series said this outcome was inevitable, with the representative retirements of Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and injuries to the likes of Matt Gillett tearing the heart out of Queensland’s leadership group.
While the veterans were missed, the blossoming of Queensland’s next generation in Origin II will have Maroons fans counting down the days until the start of next year’s series.
All eyes were on debutant Kalyn Ponga, with some questioning whether at age 20 he was ready for Origin after only half a full season of NRL with Newcastle under his belt.
Ready for it? The kid looks like he was born for it. He played around an hour in the middle of field despite playing fullback for the Knights, and chalked up a remarkable 26 tackles, two tackle busts and one linebreak in a brilliant debut.
Despite his massive workload, it was Ponga’s huge break in the 68th minute that put Queensland on the attack, NSW centre James Roberts in the sin bin and the Maroons within striking distance of stealing victory.
It was not to be, but it is doubtful Ponga could have done much more for coach Kevin Walters in a terrific first game in Maroon.
Cameron Munster, himself playing just his third Origin, said leading into the game that he one day wants to be considered as captaincy material for the Maroons.
His showing at ANZ Stadium, where he assumed the role of Queensland’s chief playmaker, shows he is made of the right stuff to dream of such lofty ambitions as inheriting the captaincy when Inglis decides to call it a day.
Holmes, under pressure to keep his spot at the start of the series, reconfirmed that he is a decade-long prospect for Queensland, running for 200m as well as grabbing the first try of the game.
And Jai Arrow, the understated dynamo from the Titans, took his game to a new level with a second-half stint that produced some punishing hits in defence and good metres as he continually bent the NSW defensive line.
Napa, Felise Kaufusi, Josh McGuire and Coen Hess were other Maroons to shine, proving Queensland’s future is in good hands.
For now, though, the future will have to wait.
Of immediate concern is getting things right for Origin III, to salvage something from the series, avoid a clean-sweep and remind the Blues that while sometimes Queensland is defeated, we are never, ever beaten.
NSW 18 (Josh Addo-Carr, Latrell Mitchell, Boyd Cordner (pen) tries; James Maloney 3 goals) d QLD 14 Valentine Holmes, Dane Gagai, Will Chambers tries; Holmes goal) at ANZ Stadium, Sydney. Crowd: 82,223.
NSW lead the series 2-0