Led by the magic hands of fullback Reece Walsh and the cool head of captain Daly Cherry-Evans, Billy Slater’s Queensland Maroons delivered a comprehensive 32-6 humiliation of New South Wales to win Game 2 in Brisbane, claim the series and, more than likely, end Brad Fittler’s five-year reign as Blues coach.
Since snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Game 1 at Adelaide, NSW had been under siege from every cliche in the book and every rugby league pundit on the planet. “It burns,” seethed Fittler. “But sometimes embarrassment is a pretty good motivator.” Unfortunately, it motivated Queensland more.
Until last night, Fittler had never lost a Game 2, winning all five during his tenure to amass an impressive three series wins since 2018. But the 51-year-old coach had been annoyed all week. His side was missing guns Nathan Cleary, Latrell Mitchell and Api Koroisau, and he had 80 minutes to save his skin – and his legacy.
But it wasn’t to be. Riding the sonic boom of a packed Suncorp Stadium, Queensland were imperious. NSW lost Tom Trbojevic with a pectoral injury in the opening minutes and a backline already shorn of Latrell Mitchell now lost its other turbo engine. Perversely, Fittler sent veteran hooker Damien Cook on as centre. He was targeted from the get-go. Cook may lead the NRL for tackles but in Origin he was a speedboat among tankers at ramming speed.
Fittler paid the price for bad selections in Game 1 and here again he fumbled the mix, switching his starting wingers so Josh Addo-Carr could combat Xavier Coates’ aerial skills. They met in a marking contest in the ninth minute and the former Bronco won the jump but an Addo-Carr hand touched first leaving Valentine Holmes to collect the crumbs for first blood.
NSW lacked clarity in attack but rallied. Payne Haas’s offloads and Brian To’o’s charges built pressure. Called in to replace Cleary as playmaker, Mitchell Moses was nerveless, taking long strides into the defence and kicking to the corners. But each time Queensland had the answers. And too often, Blues overlaps came to nothing when the last pass went awry.
On the half hour mark, with Queensland pressing, Stephen Crichton picked up a loose ball and ran 60 metres only to be tackled by Cherry-Evans. With the field spread and the big men redlining with exhaustion, Patrick Carrigan charged into a Blue wall and split it to slip an inside ball to his captain. Cherry-Evans ran for 50 metres and got quick ball back whereupon Queensland went left with fast hands and flat passes to put Taulagi over for 10-0.
Whatever Fittler told his troops at half-time it didn’t stir them from their torpor. Queensland struck within four minutes after Walsh pinballed upfield and passed to Holmes who duly planted it in the corner. A desperate NSW came again but Crichton was held up in the corner and as the Blues kicked stones, Queensland shot downfield where Taulagi shimmied a kick infield for Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to haul in and score.
Somehow, with 57% of possession, NSW were behind 20-0. Finally, Cook converted, the former beach sprint champion slicing through to score under the posts and inject hope. The Blues surged, gang-tackling Coates to the sideline, hitting Walsh in the air and forcing errors and penalties from a tiring Maroons side. But again, with their last gasp, Queensland found a way, Walsh beating Addo-Carr and giving Coates clear air to the corner.
The Blues’ Latrell-shaped hole flared open again late when Addo-Carr and Cook collided in the air to allow a final insult and a scoreline reflective of Queensland’s dominance. Tempers flared too as the final minutes exploded into an all-in melee that saw three players sent off for a litany of sins. By then Suncorp was swaying to We Are the Champions. The series was over and with it the Fittler era, but for the men in Maroon the party had just begun.