Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

WHENEVER NSW loses another State of Origin series, Sporting Declaration ponders Mike Atherton.

AWESOME FOURSOME: Cooper Cronk, Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater have been mainstays during Queensland's era of excellence.

AWESOME FOURSOME: Cooper Cronk, Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater have been mainstays during Queensland's era of excellence.

And Alec Stewart, and Graham Thorpe, and Nasser Hussain, and Darren Gough, and … so on and so on. Good cricketers, one and all. 

All of whom had outstanding individual moments and helped the Poms to famous Test-match victories.

Yet the difference between very good and all-time greats was highlighted in almost every Ashes series.

For every fighting century Stewart or Thorpe would deliver, Australia had Steve and Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer to reply.

Whenever Gough found a pitch to his liking and skittled the Aussies for a low score, we’d unleash Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, with a couple of trundlers known as Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee in support.

Not surprisingly, during Australia’s golden era, we didn’t lose an Ashes series between 1989 and 2005. That’s eight consecutive campaigns.

I remember talking to my English father-in-law about this recurring trend, arguing that Australia had the superior pathway to the top, from grassroots up.

We have two-day grade cricket, the Poms have one-day league and village cricket. Our first-class domestic format is the six-team Sheffield Shield. England has an 18-team county competition.

Our whole system was more likely to produce hardened, cut-throat players at every level.

My father-in-law, who once hit Richie Benaud for a couple of sixes back in his heyday, disagreed.

He just said the Aussies had been lucky enough that a group of champions had been born within a few years of each other.  

It was that simple, he reckoned.

And with the benefit of hindsight, I have to agree with him. Of the seven Ashes series played since 2005, the Poms have won five.

Whatever advantages we felt were inherent in our production line haven’t been delivering many dividends of late.

All of which brings me to this week’s State of Origin decider, which delivered Queensland’s 11th series triumph in 12 years.

As usual, there has been plenty of hand-wringing south of the border over the past few days.

Do we need a new coach? What’s wrong with our culture?

“I still don’t think NSW get it, just really don’t get it,’’ NSW legend Andrew Johns declared.

But really, what is there to get other than Queensland, for more than a decade, have had better players? 

It was a bit different back in Joey’s day.

His teammates included blokes like Freddy Fittler, Laurie Daley, Chief Harragon, Glenn Lazarus, Ben Kennedy, Steve Menzies and Danny Buderus.

NSW had more than enough firepower to give as good as they got.

Since 2006, however, the balance of power has been monopolised by a nucleus of quality players probably not seen since St George’s glory days in the 1950s and ’60s.

Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston will surely join the code’s most exclusive club, the Immortals, as will Darren Lockyer.

Greg Inglis and Billy Slater will presumably give it a nudge, too.

Cooper Cronk might not quite be at that level, but his record stacks up favourably alongside Peter Sterling, Ricky Stuart, Steve Mortimer and Allan Langer.

Not forgetting the likes of Darius Boyd, Matt Scott, Justin Hodges, Sam Thaiday, Michael Morgan, Will Chambers, Petero Civoniceva and Corey Parker – all of whom would have walked into any NSW line-up.

And then there are Israel Folau, Karmichael Hunt and Ben Teo, who might have made the Maroons even more formidable had they not switched codes.

Meanwhile, just reflect on the NSW teams over the past decade or so and tell me which players will be remembered among the all-time greats?

Paul Gallen and Jarryd Hayne stand out, for different reasons. But Gallen’s rugged attibutes do not win games on their own, and Hayne can be frustratingly enigmatic.

Other than Gallen and Hayne, NSW have had plenty of good players but none who rate at the next level.

This year’s series, of course, was one that NSW fans are entitled to believe was a blown opportunity, especially after their convincing win at Suncorp Stadium in the series opener.

In hindsight, the reaction of both teams to that game was defining.

Queensland made selection changes, recalling Slater and promoting some in-form debutants. On paper they looked stronger.

NSW went in at half-time in game two with a 10-point lead and assumed they were 40 minutes from a victory lap. Their hubris cost them.

The resilience and belief Queensland showed in their second-half revival was in stark contrast to the Blues’ lame effort in this week’s decider.

Perhaps the real worry for NSW is that, even after the retirement of Thurston – who may well be accompanied into the sunset by some of his mates – Queensland’s rookies were outstanding on Wednesday night.

What future superstars are out there around whom the Blues can build a team capable of toppling the evil empire, and how much longer will we need to wait?