New South Wales beat Queensland 28-4 in the first game of the 2017 State of Origin series with a straightforward formula: smash them in the middle, and play flat and direct through the halves. It’s something they should have been doing for years. For this game it worked and it has set them up for a series victory.
For years New South Wales has had a distinct advantage in the middle of the park. The 2014 series victory aside, they’d never managed to turn that dominance in the forwards into points. That had occurred for two main reasons. Robbie Farah’s tendency to look for his own opportunities before feeding the forwards was one reason, and the desire for the Blues’ backs to play a very conventional NRL attack was the second.
In this game Nathan Peats took over in the ruck from Farah, playing the ball off the ground to the big men, making it about their dominance rather than his involvement. Andrew Fifita (18 runs for 183 metres), David Klemmer (20 for 172m) and Boyd Cordner (17 for 151m) all enjoyed the better service, monstering the smaller, older Queensland pack.
New South played straight up the middle for the first twenty minutes, scoring a try when Fifita broke weak tackles from Nate Myles and Matt Gillett and fed the ball to an oncoming James Maloney. It was an ominous sign for Queensland. The Blues didn’t venture more than two passes wide of the ruck on the entire set leading up to the try, but on three tackles moved between the twenty-metre lines before Fifita popped the ball to Maloney.
The second change in the New South Wales approach was that instead of playing a standard NRL attack, they played fast and straight through the spine. Rather than run very standard set plays, Blues halves Maloney and Pearce were happier to play what was in front of them, and fullback James Tedesco was electric every time he touched the ball.
This attack was infinitely more successful than previous iterations. Late in the first half Pearce chose to swing the ball wide to Maloney instead of kick on the last. Maloney was comfortable to swing the ball further wide to Wade Graham – satisfied that Graham has the ball skills to make a choice to kick or play on further. This less conventional decision caught Queensland captain Cameron Smith unable to cover on the inside, and Graham was able to link up with Tedesco who found Pearce for the Blues second try.
The Blues showed this enterprise again in the 59th minute when Maloney again opted to run on the last, taking the ball into the line at pace. This caused Cooper Cronk to back-pedal, creating a gap for Wade Graham to send Jarryd Hayne through. It was an easy try, and was reminiscent of glimpses Maloney had provided during the 2016 series, such as when an almost identical play put Boyd Cordner over in the first game (on that occasion it was again Maloney taking advantage of a back-peddling Cronk). At the time people had hailed it as the start of a more direct approach from the Blues. It only took them twelve months to repeat what had worked then.
For their part Queensland will have serious questions to answer, not the least how to find a way to compete with the Blues monster pack. While Josh Papalii, Josh McGuire and Dylan Napa could compete physically, stalwarts Nate Myles, Sam Thaiday and Aidan Guerra were less impressive. In defence there were 30 missed tackles by forwards. There will be a lot of big Queenslanders who would fancy themselves to fill a spot in game two. For our eyes, Jarrod Wallace, Coen Hess and Gavin Cooper are the most likely to take the spot of a veteran in game two.
That doesn’t even mention the forgettable game had by Justin O’Neil. It is unlikely ‘Queensland loyalty’ will be extended to him again after his performance. Made to look inept in defence by Hayne, and unable to take advantage of Hayne’s similar defensive ability, it seems more likely that a backline reshuffle will occur to fit in either Valentine Holmes or Billy Slater at his expense.
New South Wales should feel pleased with their victory. They are in the box seat, heading to a home game in three weeks time, confident that they have the plan to win and the players to win with. Queensland will recoup and perform better in the next game. But if they don’t find a way to compete in the middle this series won’t be alive after Sydney.