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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Angus Fontaine

NSW hope to salvage State of Origin and ruin Queensland’s hunt for clean sweep

Stephen Crichton and and Brian To'o console each other with Maroons players in the background
NSW Blues’ Stephen Crichton and and Brian To'o console each other after losing State of Origin Game 2 against the Queensland Maroons. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

Usually, the “dead rubber” is as desultory as it sounds. The cake has been eaten by the victor, the candles snuffed for the vanquished and only crumbs remain for fans. Sure, every State of Origin game offers brilliance, intensity and controversy. But with Queensland 2-0 up and players boycotting media due to their dispute with the NRL, Origin game three at a half-full Sydney Olympic Stadium could be an empty experience for all.

Yet there’s still plenty in the balance on Wednesday night. Pride, first and foremost. New South Wales are desperate to salvage something from the wreckage of a series, stealing a consolation victory before a home crowd as a statement of intent for 2024. To do it they have recalled Cody Walker as new playmaker, Eels captain Clint Gutherson as utility, and Jake Trbojevic and Reagan Campbell-Gillard back into the pack. Knights centre Bradman Best and Bunnies backrower Keaon Koloamatangi will debut.

Queensland are fired up to claim the first clean sweep of an Origin series since 2010. They know a knockout blow here could have NSW seeing stars for years to come. On and off-field they have beaten and befuddled the Blues in effort and execution. In game one in Adelaide the Maroons defied a shortfall in possession and momentum to spring a devastating late ambush and win 26-18. In game two at Suncorp they came out swinging to give the Blues a 32-6 hiding and send them home humiliated. Victory in game three would be sweet annihilation.

Should it happen, Brad Fittler’s six-year reign as NSW coach would go up in flames, with captain James Tedesco’s 22-game Origin career likely lost in the same fire. Fittler’s era began in 2018 with rituals of humility and a factory line of fresh faces unscarred by old defeats. But since 2020 Fittler, 52, has lost his way at the selection table and been punished with defeat in three out of four years. Tedesco has embodied his team’s slide, looking rattled all series.

The jobs of their triumphant counterparts, Maroons coach Billy Slater, 40, and captain Daly Cherry-Evans, 34, are also in flux but for very different reasons. Slater remains uncontracted for 2024, and despite all his success steering unfancied Maroons sides to victories this year and last, the 31-game Origin legend – a former trackwork rider for Gai Waterhouse – may opt to coach the thoroughbreds at the stud farm he runs with his wife Nicole next year. Similarly, having risen from the unloved utility of his early years to the brink of the first Queensland clean sweep in 13 years, Cherry-Evans has now pledged himself to another revolution, leading the Manly Sea Eagles to their first NRL premiership since 2011.

Slater and Cherry-Evans have answered the call of their state and delivered. Now they can ride into the sunset on Wednesday – win, lose or draw. For Fittler and Tedesco, defeat in game three means staggering off the Origin stage, all ranks broken, leaving future Blues leaderless and perilous. Very different quandaries for very different leaders of very different states. But their respective dilemmas say plenty about how each approaches the Origin litmus test.

For Queenslanders, Origin belongs to a special type of athlete: tough, stoic, humble, unflashy, players forged into a team by the fire. Their support base is their 14th man, every fan donning state colours on match day, club allegiances melting into Maroon. Every year they trot out the same credo: “re-earning our jersey”, “one percenters” and “winning the small moments”. Somehow, usually against all probabilities, words become deeds and it transpires.

Conversely, NSW is left to battle Queensland and a 43-year-old inferiority complex. The Blues continue to select all-stars, premiership winners and players in-form then glue them into blue jerseys hoping they’ll gel as a champion team. Sometimes it works, but the ledger shows that mostly it doesn’t (Queensland 66 – NSW 54). Maybe club loyalty runs too deep in NSW for Origin glory to matter more. It’s one of those “one-percenters” every Origin contest hangs on, a fable everyone has come to believe. Each NSW team inherits it and each Maroons side exploits it.

Queensland may have won the series but NSW can claim a key victory on Wednesday. It may well be a dead rubber but a Blues victory keeps hope alive for the future.

  • Follow State of Origin game three with Guardian Australia’s liveblog on Wednesday. Kick-off is at 8:05pm AEST

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