Rep Review: Don’t Call it a Comeback

BY DAN

In the end the New South Wales Blues celebrated their 18-14 victory over Queensland as if they had won the series. In truth, they missed the opportunity to do that through their uninspired selections and insipid attack. They will hope this victory represents a change of fortunes, but without substantial change it will simply be a footnote on further Queensland dominance.

Winners
New South Wales won the battle…

The New South Wales forwards dominated their counterparts as they had in each game this series. Aided by a favourable penalty count, they found themselves with superior field position throughout the game. Aaron Woods had the most metres (21 carries for 170m) but it was Tyson Frizell, David Klemmer and Andrew Fifita who were the most dangerous with the ball. [1] Against an ageing forward pack unable to make them work in defence, the Blues big boppers careened into the defensive line again and again, seemingly ending nearly every set within throwing distance of the try line.

But the New South Wales backs couldn’t take advantage. This had several causes. Firstly, Coach Laurie Daley has instilled in them something akin to a “NRL’s Greatest Hits” of set plays, running standard block formations with the running second rower on the short ball with the full back as the second man. We’ve all been watching these plays for what feels forever. So have the Queenslanders. So despite the unending number of sets they had on the Queensland line, the Blues didn’t run into any points. Even when Cooper Cronk (rightly) spent 10 minutes in the bin to end the first half, these block plays were no threat to the Maroon line.

The second cause of the Blues attacking malaise was the performance of fill-in five-eighth Matt Moylan, and spinal colleague Robbie Farah. Moylan was so out of his depth in the halves that it became awkward as the game went on. Early Queensland gave him no space and he responded by routinely making the wrong decision with the ball. He looked every bit the rookie half. Farah, very much not a rookie, was equally useless. His service was adequate around the ruck, but even given an exhausted Queensland defence, he offered little else with the ball.  In fact, the best play around the ruck was the ball from Woods to Frizell that resulted in the cockroaches’ first try. Ball-runners like Frizell, Woods and Graham should have destroyed the exhausted Queensland defence. Farah was unable to unleash them.

New South Wales cannot afford to think they’ve hit on a permanent spine combination with this lot. James Maloney is capable and will be there again next year. New South Wales will lose another series if Farah and Moylan are.

Instead the Blues manufactured points from broken play and errors from both Queensland and the referees[2]. Sure you’ve got to take points however you can get them. But it’s not a sustainable approach to trying to beat one of the greatest sides in Rugby League history. Something more creative than block plays aimed at the corner posts orchestrated by someone who actually plays in the halves on a regular basis seems necessary.

Ultimately for Queensland the super-efficient play of their spine has hidden the dead wood that is their forward pack. Jonathon Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith were all better than their counterparts, and manufactured tries despite Queensland barely passing halfway all game. Queensland’s first two tries came from the Smith/Thurston combination, one ending with a beautiful ball that allowed Gavin Cooper to crash over, the other allowing Darius Boyd to chime in with a try-assist for Greg Inglis.

Next season will be a test of the Queensland selectors though. Sam Thaiday, Aidan Guerra and Nate Myles were all made to look very old out there, and one would assume a ruthless selector group would put them out to pasture before the next origin series. They dearly missed Josh Papali’s damaging running in this game. Not to mention that from next year Queensland’s ageing roster could get an injection in the form of Anthony Miflord, Valentine Holmes, Ben Hunt and a litany of other players. Whether the necessary renewal occurs will an interesting test of new coach Kevin Walters’ leadership.

And ultimately that’s why this feels like such a missed opportunity for New South Wales. The Queensland forwards were as poor this series as they have been at any point in this current run. The Blues’ dominance in the middle of the park across the three games played right into their formula for winning. But across the series their spine couldn’t take advantage: because their attacking structures lacked direction and creativity, and because the players running them lack either the experience or the capability to deliver any threat to the Queensland line.

Queensland will likely spend the next 12 months reloading for another tilt, unlikely to be as weak in the middle, but equally likely to be as efficient in attack. The formula the Blues used to win this game is unlikely to be effective next year. They have a year to come up with something better.

 

[1] Fifita was also dangerous without the ball and that’s why he ended up in the bin.

[2] The next time I see a guy chasing the ball deemed ‘passive’ in an NRL game will be the first.

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