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Scale of Queensland’s challenges during State of Origin series hid significant hurdles NSW had to face

Dynasties are nice, but have you ever tried winning a State of Origin series with a bunch of nobodies with busted bodies?

Before you start throwing rotten fruit at your own computer screen in protest, yes, the “worst ever” tag that was lumped on this year’s Queensland team was too much.

Considering they hadn’t played a game at the time it was effectively dished out, the comparison could only be based on the names in the team.

The contradiction of the tag’s timing is amplified by the fact the other team that could be said to be less impressive on paper was Paul Vautin’s fabled 1995 Maroons, but they won the series 3-0, so they can’t be the worst ever.

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Of course, nor can this one, unless you’re willing to concede, by the transit of property, that the Blues too were at the lowest ebb in their history.

But that’s not how any of this works, as evidenced by the Origin mythology built on a myriad of Queensland sides that beat higher profile NSW teams, so making the claim as such an absolute can only be hyperbole.

The fact is, this was an incredibly diminished crop of Maroons that beat a less diminished bunch of Blues.

Both teams, largely by virtue of playing an end-of-season series, looked completely different at the 2020 trophy ceremony compared to 2019. And not just because a different team was celebrating.

James Tedesco is patted on the back of the head by Brad Fittler
The impact of James Tedesco’s concussion on Game III can’t be understated.(AAP: Darren England)

Queensland only had six carry-over players from the team that turned out for the 2019 decider, but the Blues had just eight. And once James Tedesco was knocked out in the first half, only seven. Hardly a measure of consistency for the reigning champions.

As always, though, the view from 30,000 feet doesn’t show all the intricacies.

It seems a lifetime ago, but the Maroons only had their coach confirmed during the finals, while he was still in charge of the Rabbitohs’ run to the preliminary finals.

The loss of Xavier Coates a day before the decider, replacing him with a feast-or-famine winger like Edrick Lee. That precipitated a centre reshuffle — trading recently injured utility forward Kurt Capewell for what turned out to be a still injured Brenko Lee — which is the sort of thing that can demolish a team’s structures on both sides of the ball.

Edrick Lee dives forward with his tongue out as two Blues players appeal in the background
Seeing number 19 on a jersey (Brenko Lee was number 21) is a sure sign of some late rejigging.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

But the Blues didn’t have a chance to exploit that because the Queensland forward pack — which blooded seven rookies in the series — somehow recovered from the shellacking it received in Sydney, and the halves — perfectly balanced with sturdy captain Daly Cherry-Evans and superstar Cameron Munster — executed with precision on the back of it.

Of course not every millimetre of the series was sprinkled with the Wayne Bennett pixie dust.

Corey Allan played like a fourth-choice fullback in his Origin debut; Jake Friend looked like he was already resigned to Harry Grant taking his spot; and Felise Kaufusi’s tendency to all too often pick the most foolish course of action in close games could cost him a Maroons jersey going forward.

A week earlier, Phillip Sami and Coates were pounded by Nathan Cleary’s sleight of foot and in both the games they won the Maroons were fortunate NSW didn’t get one last play at a 12-man line-up.

Daly Cherry-Evans holds up the State of Origin shield as columns of fire explode behind him.
Daly Cherry-Evans is a perfect foil to the herky-jerky brilliance of Cameron Munster.(AAP: Darren England)

Queensland also lucked out that the Blues shied away from changing their winning 17 to include Ryan Papenhuyzen on the bench, which would have been worth its weight in unobtainium when Tedesco went down.

Regardless, Games I and III went the way of the apparently broken-down team, and chalking it up to Queensland spirit does them a disservice.

Parallels with 2017 series

Like the last time Queensland won a series, in 2017, and did so with an injury-hit side, the 2020 team rose above their station and the selectors’ faith was repaid on the field.

That year, with a winner-takes-all decider looming, the powers that be took a punt on Munster, who had only recently been shifted to five-eighth from fullback and had played just a handful of games with the six on his back.

In response, he played the game of his life, in possibly his best Origin performance until Wednesday night’s masterful effort.

This year, as Munster was busy being the leader everyone three years ago was hoping he would become, Grant was playing the role of 2017 Munster.

Harry Grand kneels on the ground with both hands up above his head
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s wild that Harry Grant even waited this long for an Origin debut.(AAP: Darren England)

When Grant got on the park, with the hindsight goggles on, it became hilarious that he hadn’t been picked in the first two games.

Going forward it will just be another interesting wrinkle in his Origin story, as he and Munster lead the Maroons for the next decade.

Next year Kalyn Ponga should be back. And David Fifita too. Grant will start the series and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui will be another year advanced after his breakout season.

By the same token, consider how things could have changed this year and will next year with Tom Trbojevic in the NSW backline, Cameron Murray playing more than one hit-up, or with Boyd Cordner and Tedesco making it through the series without serious concussions.

Injuries shouldn’t play as big a part in the 2021 series, but as we learned this year, games can flip on inexplicable or inescapable dimes.

Anyone looking through the annals of history will absolutely see this as an upset, but looking deeper will give some indication of how it was possible.

And in a few years’ time, with a few more series under some of these Maroons rookies’ belts, maybe it won’t seem so crazy after all.

Calling it the greatest upset ever after the series would be as wrong as calling this the worst Maroons side ever before it.


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