The feel-good stories generated by Game Two of this year's State of Origin series will go a long way towards erasing the disappointments the game has endured over the past week.
Rarely has a happy ending so emphatically obliterated the earlier, less happy, part of a story. Whilst the picture of Nathan Merritt embracing his ecstatic dad after his Blues Origin call-up is, strictly speaking, a beginning rather than an ending, there are few rugby league fans of any persuasion who are not genuinely delighted that the long overdue recognition for the gutsy Souths winger has finally come.
Chief amongst those celebrating the selection are Merritt’s huge fan base – diehards who have been wondering for years what he was doing wrong to miss out on a Blues jersey; and newer admirers who just love to watch the prolific try-scorer convert a piece of scrappy play into points on the board. He is a proud and pragmatic indigenous role model, who boasts stunning credentials for this mantle – the 44 points he has scored so far this year, his 148 NRL tries, his stoic attitude on and off the field, and his years growing up on the Block in Redfern. Nathan is light and agile, and will expect the Maroons to mark him and test him, but the accumulated wisdom of the experts who have lauded his inclusion is that he is well and truly up to the task.
This has not been a good week for our game. The events of the past 10 days cannot and should not be glossed over. It has been an awful period, and we are all the poorer for it. The ‘feel-good’ Merritt story is a rare highlight in what has been a sea of negativity.
We can find and feature upbeat and positive reports similar to Merritt’s, but my feel is that, important as these anecdotes may be, they are not the clear and resonating message league needs at the moment. On reflection I have decided that surely there is no better way for the NRL to respond to the events of the past week than to have the game do the talking next Wednesday night? Merritt is not the only debutante. Tigers prop Aaron Woods is also the worthy recipient of an unexpected chance at a coveted Blues spot. The regrouping Maroons, seemingly invincible of late, are also blooding some exciting new talent – McQueen and Parker are into the starting line-up, and Daly Cherry-Evans and Josh Papalii are into the squad. Regardless of how the opportunities are created, seeing sensational club players make their Origin debuts contributes an edginess to the proceedings, and to the theatre, of the 80 minutes of representative footy.
Adding to the spectacle we have a sell-out crowd at the ‘Cauldron’ – the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a cauldron as a large boiling vessel, which may or may not have a lid. The fond description of Suncorp Stadium as the ‘Cauldron’ is apt, and we all know that even if a lid were in place next Wednesday, the might and power of 52,500 hysterical voices would lift it within minutes of the sides taking the field. It’s equally certain that the passion, energy, intensity and commitment on display on the paddock will most certainly be red hot.
Coming off a decisive victory on June 5 the Blues looked to be well deserved favourites to take out their first series after a run of seven losses – the Herculean task of beating the Maroons at home was acknowledged, but there was still the conviction that this was their year (and there was Game Three at ANZ Stadium if a back-up plan was needed!) The euphoria had barely died down before things began to go a little pear shaped for Daley’s boys.
Mal hopes that the Blues might be in disarray, but he is too wily, creative and intelligent to have his charges expect or rely on a compromised Blues effort. The equally focussed and measured Laurie Daley will also have his consummately professional line-up ready to deliver the performance of their lives – because it will take nothing less – to endeavour to take out the series with a win in Game Two.
No, we cannot forget or downplay the gloom of the past few days. But chin up; we are talking here about The Greatest Game of All, and the greatest sporting competition in the world. The showpiece of our game will once again showcase exciting new talent, palpable pride, desperate play and 52,000 spectators worshipping every minute. On Wednesday next week we can be supremely confident that discerning sports watchers, commentators and millions of adoring fans will be captivated and enchanted, to the exclusion of all else, by the contest on the field, and our mighty game will do all the talking that’s needed.