“What is it, two in 25 years now? They don’t come easy”.
NSW coach Brad Fittler could not hide his disappointment, and nor should he, after his side fell agonisingly short in their attempt to complete the first State of Origin “blue rinse” since 2000.
The Blues had won the opening two Origins so convincingly that many were questioning Queensland's culture but the fact the match came down to them relying on Latrell Mitchell to kick a 50-metre penalty goal to send the game into extra-time shows hard a clean sweep is to achieve.
Mitchell’s attempt dropped just in front of the goal post and the Maroons hung on to snatch a 20-18 win after losing 50-6 and 26-0 in the first two matches of an historic series in which all three matches were played on Queensland soil.
Despite the Maroons’ dominance from 2006 to 2017, in which they lost just one series, Queensland’s last clean sweep was in 2010 and the only other occasions they have achieved the feat were in 1988, 1989 and 1995.
Match Highlights: Blues v Maroons
The Blues last did it in 2000 when Fittler was the captain and Wayne Pearce the coach. Fittler was also captain when NSW achieved the feat in 1996 and Pearce skippered the only other Blues team to clean sweep an Origin series 10 years earlier.
“That’s whey they are hard,” Fittler lamented. “I thought Queensland had a lot of energy, and that was their best game of the series without a doubt.
“It is the nature of the beast and I would never want to change it. That’s the way it is and hopefully that’s the thing that spurs them on if we get another opportunity at it.”
After six weeks of unrelenting criticism of their performances, Queensland were a different team in Origin III and NSW may not get a better chance to complete an elusive “blue rinse”.
Kalyn Ponga, Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, Xavier Coates, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, AJ Brimson and Moeaki Fotuaika are all under 23 years-of-age, as are injured hooker Harry Grant and suspended second-rower David Fifita, while teenagers Reece Walsh and Sam Walker are considered future Origin stars.
The Blues were without injured halves Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai and the pair were clearly missed but the difference that their absence and the inclusion of Ponga at fullback for the Maroons shows how little there is between the two teams.
At half-time, there were concerns about how Fittler was going to get interchange hooker Api Koroisau onto the field, and whether he should have kept Jack Wighton on the bench and chosen Cody Walker at five-eighth.
Some of those questions were answered when Wighton sliced through the Maroons defence in the 48th minute to put NSW ahead 12-8 and Koroisau beat Cameron Munster to a Mitchel Moses kick to score 11 minutes from time and set up a gripping finish.
Tedesco takes to the stage to lift the shield
However, in the first half the Blues attack had appeared disjointed with the new halves combination of Wighton and Moses replacing Cleary and Luai, while Queensland were playing with a fresh determination.
The return of Ponga provided the shot of confidence that the Maroons needed after back-to-back drubbings and teenage speedster Tabuai-Fidow’s selection in the centres meant the NSW right edge defence had to be on their toes.
In defence, Queensland were much more aggressive, led by forwards Josh Papali’i and Fa'asuamaleaui, while the chase by captain Daly Cherry-Evans and centre Dane Gagai on a driving Ben Hunt kick to trap James Tedesco near his try-line typified their desperation.
Had Gagai and winger Coates not been denied tries, the Maroons could have led 20-6 at the interval but NSW deserved credit for their defensive resolve during a six minute period on their own line late in the first half, in which they repelled seven sets of tackles.
Two sides to a game: Moses and Wighton combination did their job for Fittler
In the end, Hunt was the difference after scoring two second-half tries to regain the lead for the Maroons before Koroisau ensured the match went down to the wire to give Mitchell his chance to send it into extra-time.
“It’s not nice when your culture gets questioned but these things only happen when you open yourself up to it by losing footy games so the best thing we could have done tonight was win,” Queensland captain Daly Cherry-Evans said.
“Now that we have done that hopefully we can show that’s off the back of a lot of hard work so it’s a pretty good culture.”