In State of Origin, it’s common practice to explain one team’s triumph through the prism of the game’s tiny, innocuous moments. Not, as is probably the case, because one has far better players than the other.
Listen to certain pundits on Channel Nine enough, and you’ll note that Queensland has largely trounced NSW for the best part of a decade because ‘they’re first to dive on the loose ball’, because ‘they play the last five minutes harder than the first’, and so on. That Queensland do this is both true and admirable, but this explanation presupposes that the gap between both sides is so infinitesimal that the inches prove the difference. If only Gal had dived on more balls, maybe Queensland wouldn’t have won eight straight.
It’s not a binary question, though, because both are true. Queensland usually win the battle over inches; but they’ve always been miles ahead anyway.
But State of Origin is always more fun viewed through that frame, so ahead of a potentially generation-ending Game II in Sydney, it’s worth exploring the latest addition to State of Origin’s otherwise-innocuous, meaningful moments.
With 30 minutes remaining in Game I, Queensland captain Cameron Smith – his team eight points down – elected to take a short drop-out. It’s a tactic widely recognised as a mark of desperation, usually confined to the game’s latter stages when a “Hail Mary” approach is the only remaining road to victory. The drop-out, which was ultimately unsuccessful and in-turn deflating, was as uncharacteristic a move from both player and team as can be remembered in Queensland Origin history.
But why did Smith do it? In any other year, Queensland would have expected themselves to patiently bridge the gap and win the match with cool precision. Whisper it gently, but so would New South Wales.
What changed? It’s possible that, at that 50-minute moment, Smith peered around at his team, and wasn’t confident in what he saw. An ageing, or faceless, otherwise listless forward pack. A serviceable backline devoid of big game influence. It’s plausible that Smith decided if Queensland were to win, that he had to do himself.
In the end, his desperation proved prescient. His side were only eight down, but they were gone. The Blues went on to win emphatically in an almost jarringly un-Origin fashion. For a decade we’ve been used to a script where New South Wales start hopefully with an excellent-if-unrewarded first half, which usually ends with a jammy Queensland try (always converted). They’ll then arm-wrestle their way to ascendancy via mostly no-frills football, a touch of brilliance, and penalties conceded by Paul Gallen.
This script is so rusted-on that it made the manner of New South Wales’ recent win scarcely believable. They scored the last try before half-time. They kicked the tough goals. They got better as the game progressed. Queensland never countered. This – all of this – at Lang Park.
But for New South Wales to prove that they’ve once and for all re-written the State of Origin script (and some may take that term literally), it would only be fitting that they do it with Johnathan Thurston in opposition. Because as a way of underscoring his unparalleled influence in this format, it’s well worth contending that Cameron Smith does not take that short drop out if Thurston is playing.
Not since Wally Lewis has there been a player whose rhythm and timing creates such devastating cohesion, and therein lay Thurston’s greatest Origin power. Of all his wonderful abilities, perhaps least appreciated – and most intangible – is his effect on those who play next to him. While rugby league endures its annual conniption over the cannibalising effects of State of Origin on its regular season, the Origin mini-season means both teams spend relatively little time together. The opportunity to develop understanding and synthesise styles is limited, so it follows that they who combine best, win. Thurston is Queensland’s circuit board, and with him they are an entirely different proposition – not just for his inclusion alone, but for his ability to enliven each team-mate around him.
So as Blues fans eagerly hope for a truly new dawn, they’ll still recognise all-too-well the image of Thurston receiving the ball on the burst, ducking his head with ball in both hands as he angles gently across the turf, seeing all before him as we await his decision. Our own mortal eyes will be fixed on him, but in our periphery we’ll see waves of Queensland jerseys making subtle patterns around him – a half-gap here, a decoy there. Eventually someone goes over in the corner, before Thurston kicks the goal.
Given New South Wales’ evident superiority almost everywhere else on the field, a Thurston-inspired win would serve to show, yet again, just how special a footballer he is. New South Wales will await the showdown once again with hope, but quiet and justified worry.
- Join Paul Connolly from 7:30pm AEST for the latest on State of Origin Game II with the Guardian’s liveblog