“On behalf of the worst-ever Queensland team, thank you very much.”
The Maroons had just had the final say in a State of Origin series that was supposed to go one way but went another, when captain Daly Cherry-Evans had the last word on a pre-match sledge for the ages.
Paul Gallen, the former Blues captain, had declared this Queensland side the “worst”, period. “I would much rather have played against this side than any of the teams I ever played [against],” Gallen said. “In the past 15-20 years, I’d probably say this is the worst team. There you go, let’s fire them up even more.”
It worked a treat on Wayne Bennett, who inquired with signature wit as to whether “they drug test journalists”. It also apparently roused Bennett’s young team, one which had been walloped 34-10 in game two but did not let it happen again in front of a world-record crowd at Suncorp Stadium.
Gallen’s words were indicative of New South Wales’ undisputed favouritism. Brad Fittler’s Blues had won the previous two series and this three-peat was written in the stars. Their counterparts, meanwhile, were ravaged by injuries and suspensions, not to mention the end of the “big three” era ruled by Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.
Fourteen debutants played for Queensland over the three games under a coach who had replaced Kevin Walters less than two months out. The game-one comeback win in Adelaide was surprising. The decisive 20-14 victory was famous, if also controversial late on when Corey Allan was sent to the bin for a professional foul but NSW was not awarded a penalty try.
And that was after Jai Arrow lifted the head of a heavily concussed James Tedesco and pushed it into the ground, an act Fittler said showed a “lack of respect”. Arrow said he had been fired up but is “not a grub”.
After the match, Queensland great Jonathan Thurston addressed the overall incongruity of the result.
“Along with Fatty’s [Paul Vautin] coached team in 1995, I think this is one of Queensland’s greatest ever Origin wins,” Thurston said. “It was a lot of noise down south about this being the worst-ever team assembled in the 40 years of Origin history and, like I just said, the power of the jersey does something to you.”
Though that may be true, the Maroons’ second half performance left much to be desired as they failed time and again to put the game to bed. Valentine Holmes was particularly guilty as the Blues matched their points haul for the second term within a six-minute period.
Fortunately for the hosts, an unlikely hero had already done the hard yards in the first. Cameron Munster broke the game open with kick chase after kick chase that led to an Edrick Lee try. The five-eighth, named both man-of-the-match and Wally Lewis medal winner, is also savouring “one of his best years in one of the worst years”.
Munster, ejected after a heavy knock in the second minute of last week’s 34-10 game-two defeat, had to pass the NRL’s concussion protocols just to get up for this game at all. That hit from Tyson Frizell had him unsteady on his feet. In the series finale he was unshakeable, finishing with 80 metres, a tackle bust, an offload, a try assist and 11 tackles and controlled Queensland’s attack superbly.
After the era ruled by the triumvirate of Smith, Slater and Cronk, here was another Melbourne Storm man making his mark in maroon.
“The boys had a dynasty for so many years those big three [Smith, Slater, Cronk] and there was always question marks over whether I was up for the big games and whether I was up for the big moments, especially with those guys leaving,” Munster said.
“Smithy is 50-50 next year. I can’t wait to see what he wants to do and try to make a mark on my own, and prove everyone wrong and show I can really perform on the big stage.”
The other man made for the big stage was Nathan Cleary, who shone so bright in game two a strong showing in game three appeared comparatively unexceptional. The NSW halfback even earned a post-match shoutout from Munster. “You’ve killed it all year mate,” he said in his Wally Lewis medal acceptance speech. “I’m a big fan, the way you’ve played this year is outstanding.”
If there was a breakout star, Harry Grant fit the bill. The 22-year-old had not played a game in eight weeks when he came on as a replacement, and picked his moments to such perfection he was held up as the state’s long-term hooker and even likened to a young Cameron Smith.
And so, this supposed motley crew of inexperienced misfits defeated the virus and defeated the Blues, and Cherry-Evans’s mic drop said it all.