Queensland’s stranglehold on State of Origin stretched to a seventh-straight series victory after the Maroons won a classic decider 21-20 at Suncorp Stadium last night.
Cooper Cronk’s 40-metre field goal five minutes from full-time broke a 20-20 deadlock after the interstate arch rivals had battled themselves to a standstill.
The Blues had a chance to equalise with 40seconds left but Mitchell Pearce’s 45-metre effort from a wide angle fell agonisingly short and to the right of the posts.
NSW coach Ricky Stuart and his players had dared to dream this would be the year the Blues would finally break through for their first series win since 2005, but their self-belief was not enough to stop the Maroons from eking out an epic victory and extending their Origin record winning streak to seven.
As they did for departing captain Darren Lockyer last year, the Maroons farewelled champion prop Petero Civoniceva from Origin in style.
The oldest player in Origin history, 36-year-old Civoniceva made his 33rd and final appearance for Queensland just 12 days after playing his 300th NRL game on the same ground.
Even without star fullback Billy Slater and workhorse back-rower Ashley Harrison, who were sidelined with injuries, Queensland’s will to win condemned NSW to another year of what-ifs, and another year of waiting for a crack at breaking the drought.
Billed as the biggest game in the history of Origin, it was all that and more.
Queensland were on the back foot early and spotted NSW an 8-0 lead in the first 13minutes but rallied with three tries in 16 minutes to lead 16-8 at the break.
Blues prop Tim Grant was penalised in the second minute for a swinging arm on Brent Tate, who got away with a sneaky punch to Greg Bird’s head in the aftermath while the Blues back-rower was stuck on his back under several Queensland bodies.
Tate and Bird staged a rematch in back play in the 23rd minute but it went unnoticed by officials.
Winger Brett Morris, who replaced Knights flyer Aku Uate for the decider, scooted 60metres in the sixth minute and his quick play-the-ball caught the Maroons off-side.
Todd Carney kicked the goal from the subsequent penalty to give the Blues a 2-0 lead, a million miles from the 24-point deficit they faced after 30minutes in the corresponding game last year.
On the sideline, NSW mentor Ricky Stuart punched the air when Morris darted out of dummy half and wrestled out of Sam Thaiday’s tackle to score in the 13th minute.
Carney converted to stretch the Blues’ lead to 8-0 and the visitors had started just the way they had hoped to.
The tide turned two minutes later when Blues hooker Robbie Farah emerged dazed and confused after a head clash with Nate Myles.
Farah lost the ball in the tackle and, though he recovered and continued, the Maroons dominated possession and field position for the last 25 minutes of the half.
Maroons left centre Dane Nielsen was dragged down just short of the line in the 16th minute with Darius Boyd unmarked on his left, but Boyd only had to wait three minutes for Johnathan Thurston to find him with a cut-out pass and the Newcastle Knights fullback burrowed over to score in the corner.
As Bird and Tate traded blows behind the play, the Maroons took advantage of the Blues’ disjointed defensive line and looked certain to score until NSW back-rower Anthony Watmough picked off Justin Hodges’s final pass to deny a Queensland try.
Blues bench forward Ben Creagh sustained a 20-centimetre cut to his head when he fell into David Shillington’s knee in a tackle in the 27th minute.
Shillington spilled the pill three minutes later to give NSW a rare chance to attack.
The Blues fell for Thurston’s trademark show and go in the 32nd minute and he burst into the clear down the right wing, linking with Tate and Cooper Cronk inside him to turn defence into rapid-fire counter-attack.
Queensland only had to shift the ball left to score but lock Corey Parker, whose offload was the catalyst to Boyd’s try, stood and passed inside for Thurston to duck under the scrambling defence and score.
Thurston converted from close range for a 10-8 lead and the Blues, clearly rattled and struggling to keep up with the hectic pace of the game, made life even tougher for themselves when Carney’s kick-off sailed out on the full.
Hodges ran behind Ben Hannant’s decoy run to score, but video referee Steve Clark ruled Hannant had not impeded Farah.
After Clark awarded the try, referee Tony Archer explained to NSW captain Paul Gallen: ‘‘He ruled no obstruction, Paul.’’
Thurston put an even deeper imprint on the first half by converting Hodges’s try and the Maroons went to the sheds eight points in front.
The Blues had to be first to score in the second half to stay in the contest, and they did just that in the 47th minute when fullback Brett Stewart chased Farah’s grubber kick into the in-goal and grounded it just inside the dead-ball line. Carney converted and the Blues were back in business, trailing 16-14.
NSW centre Josh Morris added his name to Origin folklore with a try-saving tackle on Greg Inglis in the shadows of the goalposts in the 56th minute.
Inglis seemed certain to score, having loomed up inside Cameron Smith after the crafty Queensland skipper made a long break up the middle of the field, but Morris somehow reeled Inglis in and denied the try.
Former NSW and Australian back-rower Nathan Hindmarsh, who has made plenty of similar stops in his career, tweeted: ‘‘Best try saver I’ve seen in a long time’’.
After several scuffles in the first half, the game threatened to erupt again in the 64th minute when NSW enforcer Tony Williams caught Maroons halfback Cooper Cronk around the head, and Thurston kicked the subsequent penalty goal for a 20-14 lead.
Morris added another clip to his highlight reel in the 70th minute when he caught Farah’s cross-field bomb from the clutches of Darius Boyd and touched down in the corner.
He had to wait for Clark to give the green light, then Carney coolly kicked the sideline conversion to tie the game at 20-all.