Tony Butterfield: Origin series finale one to savour

Well, Origin is done and dusted for another year and just when we thought the concept had become tiresome, the men in the middle made the finale something special.

The footy gods would be pleased with their handiwork.

Wednesday night’s dead-rubber was anything but in the cavernous surrounds of Lang Park. Forty-five thousand Queenslanders yelled themselves hoarse as they willed their boys home in a cliffhanger that drew the curtain on the incredible representative career of Billy Slater. I’m glad I was there to see it.

It was somewhat bittersweet, though, for the Blues as they received the Origin shield before an exiting crowd in drizzling rain.

Our first half was diabolical and not what I expect coach Brad Fittler and his brains trust had planned. Possession and field position were the big losers on the stat sheet, but somehow the Blues were able to defend and defend against what was probably the most forced goal-line dropouts I’ve ever seen in a half of football. Not only did the series champions hang in, they returned serve by posting two tries before heading to the sheds in front. Amazing.

The shell-shocked crowd knew they’d better lift their noise level or all hope would be gone. And they did. Best game of the series.

Post match, things were naturally a little subdued back at the Blues hotel get-together. Families mingled with officials and players in what was the culmination of an amazing journey after the rookie coach refreshed the team culture in gambling on 11 debutants.

All eyes were on Fittler as he was invited up to critique the series and thank his players and staff. He downplayed any risk about rookie selections noting, “each player picked themselves and were form players”.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Fittler then got straight down to business.

“Winning the series was great but losing tonight is a harsh reminder that we have to improve,” he said. “I’ll see you all next year but I expect between now and then you will do all the little things every day to have yourself ready. Next year starts next week.”

** The Storm-Dragons game last week was one for the ages.

Two of the best defensive teams in the competition somehow leaked better than a point a minute in an outcome that can only be put down to the Origin disruption. Ominously for the Dragons faithful, whispers that a team who have conceded 50 points in a game have never won the competition would have been a shock to the system. But who’s superstitious?

Defense to one side, the game was a beauty. Future immortal Cameron Smith gave a masterclass in cunning, guile and slight of hand as he led his young chargers like a puppet master.

The other thing to note was the depth of their second-tier players. A bit like the production line of first-grade standard players that rolled through the Knights in the ’90s. Then, as now, it's a real credit to smart operators.

Further down the table, who’d have thought after four rounds that the hapless Raiders would be poised to make a run at the finals heading into 18.

Canberra beat the improving Bulldogs with a grandstand finish and it put them, with the Tigers, six points off the top eight, where the Roosters, Sharks, Broncos and Warriors sit lowest on 22. With just 10 games left, assuming they maintain the rage, the Raiders will be relying on the unlikely possibility of one of those teams taking a massive fall. Apart from the very real chance that the Warriors will self-destruct this time of year, it otherwise appears the top eight has been settled. I hope not.

A quick word on the Titans-Broncos derby. In their last two match-ups at Robina, the Titans have lost 54-0 and 34-0. “Absolute rubbish” and “crushed” were but two of the more printable comments from fans leaving the ground, early. It’s clear big brother is still in charge in the Sunshine State.

** At Newcastle, the Mitch is back.

I’m not sure who’s more relieved, his coach or his devoted partner. Either way, Mitchell Pearce’s presence will never be more welcomed than at McDonald Jones Stadium tonight. A bit like the return of Andrew Johns back in the day, Pearce will have fan expectations peaking as the club seeks a rare home win to push clear from the competition cellar dwellers.

With Newcastle’s form, it’s probably a bit rich to ask one unseasoned player to turn the place around. But that’s the price you pay when you’re on the big bucks. Great to have him back and hopefully he finishes his comeback victorious, fit and ready to fight another day.

And if he does that it will most likely be because the Knights forwards dominated the under-achieving Eels pack. Now I’d like to see that.

** Our youngest bloke plays Aussie Rules, and after years of league and soccer, we quite enjoy the game and the way parents hang out at team huddles and listen to the coach as they plan the next quarter. It’s quite technical at close quarters, and I’m becoming a fan. 

While I was watching the local under-13s derby with Warners Bay last week, Swans star and local Cardiff Hawks legend Isaac Heeney lobs up to the ground to say G’day. As you do.

With the game under way, he fields an offer from coach Williams to run the water. Parents were giddy with excitement as the water boy made his way around to each player. “How’s it going fellas? Like a drink? “You’re going well, keep it up.”

There were some astonished double-takes and plenty of smiles. It was a special moment for the kids and, but for your columnist, something that would not have been noted. Good on him. Apparently he does it whenever he can. Something rugby league players could emulate maybe?

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