It was a familiar feeling as Queensland did what they always seem to do in winning the State of Origin opener at Suncorp Stadium. The final 18-14 score flattered New South Wales who are left with a lot of questions to answer before the second clash in Perth.
The game started with error-free, non-stop rugby league with sets completed and kicks exchanged. Nathan Cleary's kicks all came from well within the Blues half, while the Maroons were able to put in some attacking kicks as they won the early territorial exchange.
The Blues had the first scoring opportunity in the eighth minute when a Nathan Cleary grubber kick just beat James Tedesco over the dead ball line. Tedesco was looking dangerous with every touch of the ball, but centre Latrell Mitchell wasn't his usual super confident self. On several occasions in the first half he received the ball and looked for passes or kicks rather than taking on the defence. At his best Mitchell trusts his instincts and his ability to take on the line and beat it. He was missing tackles as well.
In contrast, Damien Cook was at his best, and he made one of the first breaks of the game for New South Wales. Cody Walker put a kick through and into the in goal area shortly after, but Kalyn Ponga was able to bring the ball out. From the following set of six the Maroons made a big break down the right hand side, with Addo-Carr just managing to snuff it out. The ball was spread to the other side and Corey Oates stepped on the sideline on his way to crossing for what the crowd thought was a try. It was the story of the first half with Queensland falling short on several try-scoring opportunities.
The Maroons were finding holes in the left hand side defence of New South Wales. The cohesion between Mitchell, Cody Walker and Josh Addo-Carr wasn't up to the pace of the attack and it was only scrambling desperation that saved them.
The opening try of the match came through Blues veteran Josh Morris who benefitted from some Tedesco backline magic. The Blues went to the break with a largely undeserved 8-0 lead.
Thirteen minutes into the second half and Oates had another opportunity and stayed clear of the sideline this time. Ponga slotted the conversion from the sideline and the Maroons trailed by two points.
When Mitchell was sin-binned in the 58th minute, after almost conceding a penalty try, Ponga kicked a penalty goal to level the scores at eight. It was only eighteen minutes into the second half, but the Blues looked a completely different team as the Maroons charged up in defence and sent wave after wave of attack at the New South Wales line.
The strong first half from the Blues forwards led by David Klemmer and Paul Vaughan was missing as the bench forwards were sent on by coach Brad Fittler. Cameron Murray is a very promising edge forward at club level, but he was thrown around like a twelve-year-old several times by the Queensland forwards, as Josh McGuire in particular went about targeting the debutant.
After the game Fittler was asked why Klemmer spent most of the second half on the bench and he indicated that he thought Murray and Angus Crichton offered more in attack, as the Blues tried to chase down the Maroons.
"Obviously hugely disappointed ... we should have been better from the point of view of working together in defence," Fittler added.
"With a bit more trust we could have played a bit more footy earlier than when we were chasing late in the game."
The Blues did well to hold on right until the final minutes of Mitchell's stint in the bin. With Mitchell waiting to run back on, Jack Wighton threw an intercept pass five metres out from the Queensland line. Dane Gagai ran the length of the field to give Queensland the lead they would not relent, despite a late New South Wales try.
New South Wales won the 2018 series thanks largely to the organisation and cool head of James Maloney. His replacement Cody Walker had an indifferent debut, with Fittler replacing him early in the second half with Wighton. Nathan Cleary probably did enough to retain his place in the side, but apart from Tedesco and Addo-Carr, veteran Morris was probably the best of the backs for the Blues.
Fittler is unlikely to make big changes to his squad for Game 2, but he'll be tempted to make some tweaks. Tom Trbojevic returns for Manly this weekend and if he is back to his best over the next couple of weeks he will be considered for a return, probably knocking Nick Cotric out of the side. The bench looked to be missing a prop and if any big men can impress over the next few weeks, they might squeeze their way into the squad.
Mitchell will survive, but Fittler will have to do something to have him playing at his best in Perth or the series will be lost.