Queensland’s back-to-back State of Origin series wins – their first since 2017 – thanks to a dominant 32-6 Game Two win at Suncorp in front of a delirious home crowd will only add to Maroons lore. Yet for New South Wales, it was a humiliating and self-inflicted defeat, which has taken the Blues to a crossroads at which some difficult decisions need to be made.
The tortoise and the hare is an appropriate parable for both this series and the Billy Slater-Brad Fittler coaching rivalry. For two years, Slater has been deliberate and methodical in his approach – in planning and preparation, team selection and interchange rotation, and how to deal with game plans and players who missed being picked. All contingencies have been prepared for. There has been nothing sexy about Slater’s approach but Queensland have just gone into every game confident they were ready and would not be let down by those off the field.
Fittler, by contrast, has opted for an increasingly dangerous combination of risk-taking and stubbornness throughout this series. His approach has at times been kamikaze in nature, featuring a resounding self-belief in the face of common sense and popular opinion that has led to moves few others could understand.
It was slow and steady against a desire for quick fixes and a devotion to impulse. And it led to Slater winning four of five games against Fittler.
For the first time in the last six years, Queensland were not only favoured but heavily so in the 2023 series. But the burden of expectation did not weigh them down, nor did any pressure applied by New South Wales. Slater has re-instilled the resilience that Queensland have made famous – an ability to absorb pressure and then take opportunities when they arrive. Seven linebreaks and six tries in Brisbane, despite being well beaten in the possession stakes, is testament to the Maroons’ patience and ruthlessness.
Luck, of course, plays its part in all sporting contests and it was the Maroons who got the rub of the green in Brisbane. Queensland’s first try was questionable at best with potentially two knock-ons in the play while their second appeared to come off a forward pass. The early injury to Tom Trbojevic sent any plans the Blues had completely off the rails. The better team won, but in truth it was the better prepared team that won.
Damien Cook played 78 minutes of a game which New South Wales needed to win. The Blues had 55% of possession yet scored just a single try and conceded 32 points to a Maroons team that had just a 45% share. New South Wales had more tackle breaks, post-contact metres and passes yet were never in the game.
If that doesn’t sum up the Fittler era, then it at least gives a suitable eulogy for his final years. In the opening game when Trbojevic went down late with an injury, he opted for Nicho Hynes, despite having numerous more suitable options to play centre among a string of edge backrowers. Hynes conceded the defining try playing out of position.
Rather than admit his mistake when Trbojevic went down again on Wednesday, Fittler doubled down by choosing arguably the least suitable person from his bench to play the all-important left centre. Cook turns 32 on Friday. He stands 1.78m tall, which is short for a centre. He has spent most of his career playing hooker. Yet Fittler plumped for him ahead of playing a backrower like Hudson Young, Liam Martin or Cameron Murray.
Cook, typically, tried so hard but he was found out time and time again. Poor positional work contributed to the first try. He spilled an attempted bomb that led to the final try. In between were poor tap-ons and defensive reads. None of this was Cook’s fault – he was set up to fail.
Realistically, Fittler has little chance of being named New South Wales coach next year, and the NSWRL will now seriously consider his suitability to both select and lead the team into the dead rubber in Sydney. Defeat, of course, is always around the corner in Origin, but on what was a night of great celebration for Queensland, New South Wales have found themselves at the start of a great reckoning.