Backs to the wall, ranks broken with injury and illness and still staggering after a walloping in game two, Queensland produced one of the great State of Origin boilovers, defeating New South Wales 22-12 in a brutal, brilliant decider at Suncorp before 52,385 fans.
The opening minutes were crazy in their intensity and physical carnage. Queensland’s first charge through Corey Oates sent Cameron Murray staggering. Murray left, never to return. Then Selwyn Cobbo was laid out, crunched by friendly fire tackling Matt Burton, and left Suncorp in a neck brace on a medicab. Then, in the third minute, a second Maroon and third casualty as Lindsay Collins went off as collateral damage from a savage Tom Gilbert hit.
Brawls erupted each time as teammates rushed to defend the fallen. Jerseys were tugged and words exchanged. Blood was up but none was spilt. Despite the injury toll and the rush of fresh blood into the game, there was still a series to be won.
Down to two on the bench, Queensland found the running. Kalyn Ponga had been asked to step up. He had played five series but never a decider. Now the rubber man bounced in and bent into the line, shimmying through gaps and throwing dangerous floaters out wide.
Twice Queensland went close but it took a long run from Capewell to set up in the red zone.
Cameron Munster’s positive Covid test had sent shockwaves through the Maroons camp on Friday and blown a gaping hole in Queensland’s chances. But no one told Tom Dearden. The Cowboys debutante had already produced a great goal line tackle and a short kick for a disallowed try. Now in the 12th minute he took on the blind side, double-pumped and found Valentine Holmes on the charge to score, then convert, his 11th Origin try.
Riding the passion of their fans, Queensland surged again through a couple of Jeremiah Nanai charges and more snake-hipped work from Ponga. But in a blink the Blues hit back, a Cleary grubber finding Jarome Luai who stumbled but came again to lunge and touch down and equalise.
Chasing a fourth victory from Brad Fittler’s five series in charge, the Blues lifted. Tedesco broke the line but Ponga took his bootlaces. Crichton’s kick forced a turnover. A second wave of attack found Cleary feint to bomb but decide on a worm-burner into the post which Koroisau knocked on. Luai forced another dropout in the 28th minute and the Penrith combinations started to purr. Soon after Saifiti barrelled through to score under the posts.
Two snow-capped bombs now proved crucial. Burton’s first left Ponga befuddled but Oates cleaned it up. But Cherry-Evans’s response made Tupou look silly and won the ball back. On the stroke of half-time Grant spun, sent Tedesco going the wrong way, jagged a low kick which deflected off Luai’s shins and skidded into the path of Capewell who scored to send the teams to the break at 12-10 but honours even and 40 minutes to break the game open.
The second half was even more frenzied than the first. In the first minute, Ponga snapped the line and on the next charge Cherry-Evans towed ahead and claimed a try. But all eyes were on the back play. Ponga had been clipped while getting to his feet and Gagai put a shoulder into Burton in revenge. Now it was on, as wild punches flew. Both men went to the sin bin.
Cherry-Evans had reefed three long kicks past Tupou and Tedesco but it was Ben Hunt’s 40-20 in the 57th minute that set up Queensland. The Maroons quickly swept it wide, left then right. As the clock ticked into the final quarter, Cherry-Evans swivelled and Ponga swooped, spun, stepped in and surged over to score his first Origin try and put the Maroons ahead 16-12.
Queensland kept their tails up. Harry Grant crossed but was held up, then Jeremiah Nanai juggled a bomb over the stripe which was ultimately ruled to have gone forward. Both teams were dead on their feet but crazed with adrenaline as the game entered the final ten minutes with four points the difference. Players lost position, each fighting a battle to stay upright.
NSW kept threatening, bursting into space but their legs were leaden and Queensland were rushing up to smother each wave of attack. The blue balloon started to deflate and when Hunt plucked a juggled ball out of the air, it burst. With the crowd on their feet screaming him home, the hooker scooted 70 metres to score a famous try that sealed the 2022 series.
Marooned in enemy territory, NSW found themselves in familiar oblivion – outfoxed and dismantled by a state with a siege mentality who breathed life into their beleaguered team. After two stilted years of restricted crowds and strange scheduling, a classic Origin series had reached a memorable climax – and the game and fans emerged the ultimate winner.