While Queensland won’t be shaking in their boots when they get around to watching this match, they won’t be planning their State of Origin victory party either.
Representative football’s least-celebrated instalment turned out to be a high-standard game that fulfilled its modern function – as a NSW selection trial – more than satisfactorily.
Selectors would have been delighted with what they saw. A lot of players in contention for state spots went terrifically well, and there is depth in several positions, especially wing. While it isn’t lost on anyone that the entire Australian backline is Maroon and, for that reason alone, a NSW triumph this year is a long-shot, Blues’ fans would have seen enough to believe their state may be able to assemble a XVII over three games that could end Queensland’s dominance.
As for the match itself, City were resounding winners, and coach John Cartwright was entitled to suggest that fact should be reflected in selections. One of the most impressive things about the victory was that it was achieved despite a tremendous start by Country, who rode a wave of possession to lead 12-0 after 26 minutes and 12-6 at the break. Country halves Jarrod Mullen and Terry Campese both made polished starts and everything flowed from them. Behind on the scoreboard, and being outshone as individuals, City players in key positions showed the kind of coolness under pressure crucial in Origin.
Halfback Peter Wallace and hooker Robbie Farah were the standouts, but a number of others (Michael Jennings, Craig Wing, Michael Weyman) weren’t far behind. City took control in the second half and by the end it was an exhibition.
Something else that would have pleased the NSW selectors was the authentic attacking potency on display – so welcome with memories still fresh of last year’s Origin series, in which the Blues struggled to make a bust. Based on the action at Wade Park, Orange, NSW have the opportunity to pick a new-look side, quick and exuberant but still with a good smattering of experience, that could rattle Queensland’s stars come June.
The Game Swung When… With City trailing by two points midway through the second half, Jennings gathered a kick five metres from his goal-line and, in a twinkle, launched a rousing counterattack. Weaving between defenders at pace, he popped a pass for a flying David Williams to show off his speed over the remaining 75 metres to the opposite goal-line. This try-from-nothing sent the visitors’ confidence soaring, while knocking the stuffing out of their opposition, and for the last quarter it was all City.
Who Was Hot… Wallace (61 touches and a try assist) and Farrar (97 touches, three try assists, 41 tackles), who all but sealed the NSW halfback and hooker spots respectively. The Broncos’ no.7 built from a quiet start to finish as the game’s best player, kicking and passing with precision, challenging the line occasionally, playing the general’s role to perfection, and capping a memorable night with a solo try on the stroke of fulltime. His 16-point haul included six conversions, but Wallace is no Keith Barnes. His only miss of the night was also his only difficult attempt, and it went sideways. An Origin kicker he probably isn’t.
Farah clearly outpointed his opposite Michael Ennis (92 touches, 32 tackles, two tackle breaks), who started well but faded. For years the understudy, the Tigers’ rake looks ready for the next step. For Country, James McManus (four tackle breaks and a try assist) would have won new fans with a showing that marked him as what Phil Gould calls an Origin-style player: tough and reliable; showed one heck of a leap, too, to set up the game’s first try for Jamie Lyon. The Origin wing spots will be fiercely contested, with Williams (134 metres), Jarryd Hayne (117 metres) and Joel Monaghan (183 metres) also excelling on the night.
Streamlined and focused thanks to special attention at the Dragons, Weyman (14 hit-ups, 117 metres) pushed his claims with a robust, just-keep-rolling effort reminiscent of the great Queensland prop Martin Bella. Would look fine in blue.
Who Was Not… No-one was stone cold, but Campese and Mullen just weren’t hot enough for long enough. Campese, especially, began with aplomb, but the Country halves faded in the second half in the face of the City onslaught – the sort of onslaught Queensland are renowned for. Likewise, only Ennis’ most-zealous fans would try to claim he matched it with Farah.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… See above re: the Jennings/Wolfman play that turned the game. Jennings (120 metres, seven tackle breaks, three offloads, a try and a try assist) has the X factor that NSW have been missing, while Williams ran like a man fleeing fire.
Bad Boys… Beau Scott and Ben Creagh were both placed on report for separate lifting tackles that old-timers would call harmless and part of the game they once knew. However, Creagh was later charged by the match review committee; but he’ll be free to play against the Bulldogs with an early guilty plea.
Ref Watch… Gavin Badger and Shayne Hayne went well, rightly keeping low profiles on a night when the imperative was finding out how certain players perform under higher-than-usual pressure. Acute viewers may have noted that when Williams was in full flight, Hayne stayed with him as well as any of the Country pursuers.
NRL Best & Fairest… 3 points – Peter Wallace (City): Excelled under the spotlight to see off his counterpart and lead City home; 2 points – Robbie Farah (City): Clever, probing performance that put Ennis in the shadows; 1 point – Craig Wing (City): Coming off the bench to replace John Sutton, showed he still has it with an electric display that included 25 touches, three tackle-breaks and a line break.
City 40 (M Minichiello 2, J Hayne, M Jennings, P Wallace, D Williams, C Wing tries; Wallace 6 goals) def Country 18 (J Lyon, L Patten, A Tongue tries; Lyon 3 goals) at Wade Park, Orange. Crowd: 8226.