Slater heroics and Ponga's talent the twin positives from shattering defeat
The two words on everyone's lips from Queensland's point of view for Origin II were Kalyn Ponga. Combine that with another two words – Billy Slater – and the Maroons nearly forced the 2018 Holden State of Origin series to a decider.
Whether it was Slater slipping in to create the extra man on the left edge, following a Cameron Munster kick, or cranking up the Maroons counter-attack, he made Queensland a lot more dangerous proposition than two-and-a-half weeks ago.
Then in comes Ponga, fresh from just 24 NRL games and into the fiery world of Origin.
He hunted the ball like a hound and usually found it. His 30 metre dash upfield in the 69th minute, after splitting the NSW line with ease, brought a glimmer of hope that Queensland could snatch the game. Will Chambers had just scored a try to get the Maroons within four points, with the score 18-14 to the hosts.
A Ponga pass meant for Holmes in the 76th minute went behind the Cronulla Sharks winger. Slater had been involved in getting the Queenslanders up field far enough to threaten again.
Certainly Queensland lost the game and the series – just the second in 13 years – but Ponga and Slater made it harder for NSW to win.
Most expected Ponga to be a large enough X-factor, in combination with Slater's return from a hamstring injury, for the Maroons in squaring the series.
Ponga entered the fray in the 28th minute and stayed there until the full-time whistle. His 53 minutes included 10 runs, 108 metres, a line break, and still had enough energy to make 29 tackles.
"He's made for it. An incredible kid," skipper Greg Inglis told Channel Nine, when asked about Ponga's performance.
Ponga roamed on the left side after first coming on close to half-time. After halftime he was on the Maroons right side, dropping into the middle in defence. He was playing a second row-centre combination.
Ponga linked with Slater in attack once or twice, bringing together the old and the new – Ponga on debut and Slater reaching the 30-game milestone, just the 10th Maroons player to do it in 38 years of Origin history.
Slater produced remarkably similar figures making 12 runs, 103 metres, a line break assist and two tackle breaks. By halftime Salter had touched the ball 25 times – or three more than halfback Ben Hunt. By fulltime he'd made 48, or just three less than his halfback.
Once again the northern end of ANZ Stadium came to haunt Hunt.
In the October 2015 grand final against the Cowboys it was the Broncos halfback who knocked on near his own line handing over possession. Johnathan Thurston nailed the field goal.
On another Sunday night – this time in July 2018 - it was Hunt who inexplicably put himself in the path of Boyd Cordner chasing a James Maloney grubber.
The ensuing penalty try (30th minute) gave NSW the lead for the first time in the match.
Then with NSW reduced to 12 men after the James Roberts sin-binning, Hunt kicked too long on just the third tackle, handing NSW a seven-tackle set to get them out of trouble.
Hunt knew he had blown it, chastising himself loudly as he realised the lost opportunity.
Almost unnoticed in the Ponga-Slater show was the heroics of Inglis. He made 82 post contact metres and was a constant threat.
Prop Dylan Napa also managed to extract himself from his ice and compression machine, treating a twisted ankle, to play 35 minutes in two stints. He made nine runs for 78 metres and 28 tackles.
His front row partner Jarrod Wallace cut a forlorn figure on contrast. After 28 minutes he was the one pulled off so Ponga could enter the match. Wallace spent the entire second half on the bench.
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