The National – Thursday, June 16, 2011
SYDNEY: New South Wales ensured Darren Lockyer’s State of Origin farewell would be an all-or-nothing affair as the Blues sent the series to a decider with a courageous 18-8 win at ANZ Stadium here last night.
The Blues were relentless as they overcame the Maroons with their up-tempo blitzkrieg, returning son Anthony Minichiello the hero with the match-sealer three minutes from time to send the 81,965 fans into delirium.
Clinging to a 12-8 lead as they looked to avoid a sixth straight series loss, Blues five-eighth Jamie Soward stepped through the Queensland defence before finding Minichiello – a late call-up to replace Josh Dugan for his first Origin since 2007 – in support.
Minichiello may have taken the plaudits, but there were plenty of heroes for the Blues, captain Paul Gallen, who was named man of the match produced a mountainous 234m performance up front, and 19-year-old centre Will Hopoate celebrating his Origin debut with a stunning try which gave the Blues a lead they would not relinquish.
The series-tying win was not how Lockyer would have liked to have celebrated his record-breaking 35th Origin appearance, but it ensured the finale would be a memorable one as the Blues looked to win their first series since 2005.
Gallen got the first hit-up he publicly craved before the game, but the traditional Origin ferocity made way for blinding speed as the referees set about putting their imprint on the contest as Johnathan Thurston gave the Maroons an early 2-0 lead with a penalty.
On the back of a run of penalties, the Blues grabbed the momentum, but they lost it just as quickly with the surprise decision to go for an equaliser back-firing when Soward’s attempt from distance rebounded off the upright.
The Maroons secured back-to-back sets, and having offered stout resistance over the opening quarter of the match, the Blues would have been mortified by the soft passage allowed Cameron Smith – who darted out from dummy half to cross from 5m out.
The insertion of Kurt Gidley off the bench breathed life into NSW’s charge, and the once impregnable Maroons wall was littered with holes as the Blues marched downfield with intent.
It finished with Mitchell Pearce kicking for the corner and Luke Lewis – with his second touch of the ball – outleaping Billy Slater to score in the corner, Soward landing a conversion from the sideline to close the gap to two.
The Blues once again had a sniff and they threatened with Akuila Uate posing problems down the right edge, but the finishing touch the home side longed for was nowhere to be found before the break.
Having completed 19 sets without an error over the opening 40 minutes,
the Maroons came up with two inside the opening five minutes of the second stanza.
Slater saved their bacon when he cleaned up a Soward grubber, but he could nothing to deny Hopoate, who contorted his body, arm and the ball to touch down in the corner – his poise under pressure to score belying his teenage years.
Another Soward pearler from the sideline pushed the home side out by four, but anyone who has witnessed Queensland play over 31 years of Origin knew better than to think the Blues were safe.
Anthony Watmough went close to adding some scoreboard security only to be pulled up centimetres out, but the enormity of that defence had nothing on the display at the other end when Lewis came from the clouds to stop Cooper Cronk 10m out.
Michael Ennis gave away a blocking penalty to give the Maroons another chance, but NSW were not to be denied as Minichiello ensured a fairytale Origin return. – AAP