It’s something Brad Fittler has said several times before – New South Wales, historically, doesn’t deal with favouritism all that well.
This has been true for many years, even during Fittler’s own tenure as Blues coach. For all it’s glory and victories, even Fittler’s Blues don’t look comfortable when they’re sitting on top of the world.
Call it complacency or whatever you like, but it’s a lesson they should have learned in 2020, when they were beaten by the so-called worst Queensland team ever – two years later, it seems as though it’s a truth that’s yet to really sink in.
There was no smoking gun for New South Wales’s 16-10 loss to Queensland on Wednesday night. No magic moment on which the entire match turned, no hinge on which everything swung.
It just kind of happened.
The Blues looked good, until they didn’t, and the game was theirs, until it wasn’t
Stadium Australia doesn’t burn with the white-hot fury of Lang Park, it’s an arena which can feel colder and crueller, and when defeat for the Blues is in the air there’s less panic and more of a strange pall that falls over the ground. The crowd did not expect this. They did not know how to deal with it.
The idea of the Blues losing didn’t feel like a serious prospect until Valentine Holmes scored in the second half.
James Tedesco was magnificent in a beaten team, Jack Wighton played brilliantly and brutally at left centre and Isaah Yeo finished the game with ball in hand and one yard short of the line — but in Origin one yard short may as well be miles back.
And then the dust settled, and the Blues had actually lost, with Queensland claiming their first win in Sydney since 2017. Homebush doesn’t have the same mystique as Lang Park, but Maroons don’t win here often. Even the dynasty struggled here at times.
But then it shouldn’t be all that surprising that this team succeeded under these conditions. Queensland’s natural Origin habitat is as the despised, friendless underdog, the kind of underdog where only the 17 blokes in the jersey reckon they can get it done and, somehow, they find a way to do it.
This is so baked into the Maroons DNA that even during their might eight-year winning streak, when they had multiple players who will contend for Immortal status, they still tried to convince the world and themselves that they didn’t have a chance without some good old Queensland spirit.
The Blues are only slightly ahead of the Maroons on paper, but even the thinnest of margins is enough to get Queensland playing all the old hits again.
Because yeah, the streak was great, and yeah, it ‘s nice to win series easily against an overmatched New South Wales side, but this sort of win is what Queenslanders really want – a backs to the wall effort, with blokes getting injured and either battling on to inspire their teammates or have those same teammates gritting their teeth and finding a way to go on.
This win was like reading a Queenslander’s fan-fiction, scrawled on the back of a Fourex coaster at the Caxton, and it’s a story they never tire of telling.
Supporting a team full of all-time legends must feel amazing, but you know what’s even better? Watching Cameron Munster, the mastermind of this heist, land another improbable one-on-one steal in his own half when the Blues were hammering down the Queensland door.
Or seeing Lindsay Collins, who has not been good for the Roosters this season, turning the tide when he comes on and flashing a grin with missing teeth at fulltime.
Or witnessing Patrick Carrigan, on debut, giving Munster a run for his money in the man of the match stakes.
Or asking how the hell we all overlooked Kalyn Ponga, as he played a crucial role in two tries and looking like a player who can and will star at this level.
The secret of the vaunted Queenslander spirit is winning when you’re supposed to is great but winning when you’re not meant to is better, and it’s a high that never, ever gets old. Time will tell if this series joins the legendary Maroon victories of the past, like 1995 and 2006 and 2020, but it’s as good a start as any.
But it’s worth remembering the script flips from here, as Fittler’s Blues face the greatest test of his tenure.
He’s led them back from 1-0 before, in 2019, but that was with a decider in Sydney. This time, they’ll have to head across the desert to Perth and win just to keep the series alive, and then they’ll have to head to Brisbane to win a decider in the belly of the beast, which only two Blues sides have ever done before.
They’ll be up against it. Backs to the wall. Friendless and deserted. Walking through the fire. Drop them all, the punters will say. Fittler will gather them in the changing rooms in Perth, in the moments before the series is on the line again, and he will say the only ones who believe in us are the 17 blokes in this room.
That might prove to be enough because, as New South Wales have shown time and again, they do not bear favouritism well.
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