STATE OF ORIGIN: Déjà vu, All Over Again

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PHIL BURFURD ignored the experts, assessed the form and claimed the money on the mighty Maroons:

 

QUEENSLANDERS! Queenslanders! What is it about those bloody Queenslanders?

Sure, we know they are a strange bunch who live their lives in shorts, drink red wine straight out of the fridge and finish every sentence with, “hey but!” But our red-neck brothers of the Deep North are still part of us. Or they are for 11 months of the year.

Come July all that changes. Come July and it’s the Maroons versus the rest of Australia. It seems like nothing binds Queenslanders together more, nor divides them from the rest of Australia than State of Origin rugby league.

The Decider, as the third Queensland v New South Wales State of Origin match was billed was proof positive of this.

It was also the match billed as the changing of the guard. When New South Wales would finally seek revenge for years of humiliation at the hands of those bloody Queenslanders, and when a new world order of Blues domination would come to pass.

The hype in the Sydney media pre-game was palpable. Right up to kick-off the Sydney talking heads, led by the chief spruiker Gus Gould, were telling us that this was the end of an era; that Boyd Cordner’s boys were the new loaf of sliced bread.

Nobody told the Queenslanders. They were still working off the old script!

AN Origin decider, IN Queensland AT Lang Park (it may be officially Suncorp Stadium these days but it will always be Lang Park to the faithful).

That should have rung alarm bells straight away for the geniuses who supposedly know rugby league. History shows Queensland win deciders when they are played in Brisbane and especially at Lang Park.

Since the first Origin kick-off back in 1980 the Maroons have won five of seven deciders coming from 1-0 down. And of the nine game-3 deciders at Lang Park (there was also one at QE2 Stadium) Queensland has won seven of them.

The bookies had NSW at $1.25 favourites before kick-off but that didn’t consider the impact of 50,000 odd rabid Queenslanders packed into a graveyard stadium for visiting teams.

If Donald Trump was running Queensland he would surely have built a fence north of the Tweed by now and last night he would have locked the gate at Coolangatta. This is July in the Sunshine State when they mentally secede from the Commonwealth and take all the best rugby league footballers with them.

There is probably more people living along the Parramatta River than in the entire state of Queensland but there is something special and unique about the Banana Benders’ passion for Origin, and it showed last night.

You knew, from the moment the legendary Johnathan Thurston was introduced centre field to say his Origin farewell on the same spot where only a week or so earlier Jeff “The Hornet” Horn had created mayhem with his earth-shattering win over Manny Pacquiao, that the manic Maroon Army would have a say in this outcome.

Experts talk about home ground advantage and hoodoo stadiums but the old Brisbane “Cauldron” at Lang Park once again lived up to its reputation as a graveyard for visiting teams. Not surprising then that the corpse of a new era of Blues invincibility was summarily buried in the turf of the stadium built on the site of the old Northern Brisbane Cemetery.

From the kick-off let me say that some league addicts would consider that I know bugger-all about rugby league. It doesn’t mean I don’t follow it, it’s just that I don’t quite know what I am following, I have never played the game and am certainly no expert on the rules.

For someone who cut his teeth as a journalist writing sports it’s quite an admission, especially a sports hound who covered everything from tennis to hurling and bowls to cricket.

But I have a further confession, for my sins I am not a cockroach but a Mexican from south of the Murray whose meat and three-veg diet growing up was AFL (or VFL in those days), cricket with tennis thrown in for dessert.

I sorta follow the Storm and do ok in the mandatory office NRL tipping competition. I watch on TV but get so seriously bored with all the hoopla and hysteria in the Sydney media around a bunch of ordinary players who earn too much money, have too much time on their hands, spend too much time at tattoo parlours and have terrible social skills. A lot like the Melbourne AFL media of late I suspect!

However, I am a sports lover and State of Origin is different. This is world class football played by the two best rugby league teams in the world. Or as Gus kept telling us last night: “The best of the best. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

You don’t need to know the rules. If you love watching the best footy of any code you sit back and take the helicopter view of the game. You let it wash over you and just appreciate the brilliance and ability of the players.

And while my pension was on the Maroons, for all the obvious reasons, I sat back last night and let the brilliance wash over me. It was really like looking at a Melbourne Storm game.

In this theatre of dreams the main players commanded, and demanded centre stage, and the bit parts were left to the bookies’ favourites. And weren’t their performances of Academy Award standard.

The commentators kept talking about the Melbourne spine and how they totally controlled the match. I have no idea what the spine refers to in a lateral moving game format, but I knew they were talking about the Melbourne Storm’s leadership group and the three best players in rugby league today, the redoubtable Cameron Smith and his other Musketeers Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.

You would pay good money to watch these three guys play football anywhere and last night a stadium record crowd was happy to do that and watch them orchestrate an improbable victory into a one-sided event.

If AFL had been smart when headhunting “leaguies” to switch codes a few years back they should have paid millions to buy these three genuine stars, and they were right under their noses just across from the MCG. I would love to have seen Smith, Cronk and Slater do their thing in AFL, they would have been naturals.

Anyone who has ever seriously watched football of any persuasion could see the Blues were in for a tough night after the first 15 minutes of Cameron Smith magic. He was The General controlling the pace, direction and tempo of the game from the kick-off. It’s not surprising he is a Hawthorn supporter. You could see him with Luke Hodge in a corner of the Hawks social club with a cold frothy discussing tactics like a couple of field marshals. He made one mistake in 80 minutes of football brilliance, but it made no difference.

Cronk’s class was cameoed in one exquisite movement when he delivered a low, raking pass across field to a Valentine Holmes at full tilt that hit him on the chest without breaking stride. Try! Centimetre perfect, as Dennis Cometti would say.

Slater showed that 34 is not too old to be playing contact football at the highest level. The amount of space he found right through to the final whistle was an indictment on Blues players who were still at school when he started playing Origin.

The whole NSW strategy to take home the Shield was predicated on “The Over-The-Hill Gang” being ready to follow Thurston out the door of representative football. Wrong! Not only did they each play their leading roles to perfection but they successfully introduced their understudies Cameron Munster and Valentine Holmes to the big time.

Munster, on debut in Origin showed he was totally at home at this level of football. Or as one of the TV commentators described it: “He’s running around like he’s back in the juniors.”

I know nothing about Valentine Holmes, but I love saying his name. Valentine Holmes! Valentine Holmes. It’s a name straight out of central casting and coupled with his matinee movie idol looks and the footwork of Fred Astaire his three tries assigned the Blues to the Origin scrap heap.

Make no mistake, while the score line was one-sided this was a great Origin. Long gone are the days of biff and bash Origins and in its place a spectacle that does credit to the code with its national audience and viewers in 97 countries around the world as the “voice of rugby league Ray “Rabbits” Warren crowed before kick-off.

On paper, the Blues were by far the better side. James Maloney, James Tedesco, captain Boyd Cordner, Tyson Frizell, Nathan Peats all tried hard and are the future of NSW Origin. But the “Hayne Plane” got stuck in the hangar door and Mitchell Pearce has again made himself an easy scapegoat for all the Monday Morning Quarterbacks who will dissect the game in pubs across Sydney for a long time to come.

The Blues didn’t go away completely emptyhanded. They won the tattoo competition with Josh Dugan as man-of-the-match with more moving pictures than a Hoyts cinema complex.

So, what do we make of it all? Yes, the recriminations have started. Coach Laurie Daley’s head is on the chopping block and he has been sent to the Nathan Buckley exit door for failed coaches. Already Andrew Johns is being touted as the next legend to pick up the poisoned chalice.

But amid all the wailing and gnashing of teeth from Bondi to the Blue Mountains there is a bright side for the Blues. Thurston has said his public goodbyes to rep football, Cronk may be following him and Smith and Slater are setting their sights on life after football. These are once-in-a-generation players and it will be years before we see the likes of them again. You would think the golden era is all but over for the Maroons.

In reality, the Blues need a psychologist more than a new coach. Maroon demons are doing their heads in. Last night they got stage fright at the very time they were auditioning for a new world order.

The powers that be at Moore Park need to create the same siege mentality we saw at Lang Park last night. They need to get the entire state embracing the challenge not the few thousand die-hards who turn up to NRL games each week. They need to change the padlock on the gate at Coolangatta!

mm

Author: Phil Burfurd

PHIL BURFURD entered journalism at the Melbourne Herald 50 years ago. He wrote tennis and AFL football before becoming the inaugural editor of Australia’s first weekly national football newspaper, Inside Football.

He was chief football writer for the Sunday Observer during the 1970s before hanging up his pen to enter corporate life. He moved to Sydney more than 20 years ago and is now a professional sports fan. He follows NRL as well as AFL and has added Melbourne Storm and Melbourne Victory to the teams he follows.

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