State of Origin's tenuous balance of power shifts again

The balance of power in State of Origin has always been tenuous, subject to generational anomalies and more instantaneously to critical injuries.

During the decade of Queensland dominance, the Maroons enjoyed the benefit of a core of players who were among the best to ever play in their positions. With their retirements came expectations of a shift in the balance of power towards the Blues. That inevitable swing lasted just one year before some key injuries and the mythically superior Queensland spirit saw an unexpected Maroons series win in 2020.

This year the Blues were able to start the series with next to their best line-up, while the Maroons had some key players missing. The added shift resulted in a two-game, series-winning annihilation by New South Wales. The Blues scored an unprecedented 76-6 across the first two games, both played in Queensland.

By the time Game 3 rolled around, not only were all New South Wales' venues unavailable, but so too were the Blues halves, who had played key roles in the opening victories.

For Queensland, Kalyn Ponga was back at fullback and the selection of a genuine centre in Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow allowed back rower Kurt Capewell to take up his preferred position, while scheming veteran Ben Hunt was handed the No. 9 jersey. Queensland were much stronger, and the scales tilted towards the Maroons.

It was evident fairly early on in Game 3 that new Blues half Mitchell Moses was struggling with the pace of Origin, caught several times before getting his pass away. Similarly, five eighth Jack Wighton was amiss with several of his kicks, giving the Maroons two seven-tackle sets from their 20 metre line. Not that an extra tackle here or there was going to be noticed in a half where the referee arbitrarily reset the count 10 times in between awarding five penalties to the Maroons.

The Blues' first try came through Damien Cook passing a long direct pass to Moses, giving him more room and time to pass it onto Wighton who found Latrell Mitchell, who weaved his magic. Captain James Tedesco was even more noticeable darting around the ruck, trying to take some pressure off the new halves combination.

The 8-6 halftime lead to Queensland was much more familiar to fans of Origin. It was a tight, evenly-fought battle, with a try to each team and the result completely in the balance. The first half weight of possession helped with the shift of power towards Queensland.

Twelve minutes after the break the Blues received their first penalty of the game. It came with them already dominating the second half possession and after the new halves had combined well for the Blues' second try to take the lead 12-8.

With early signs of another New South Wales second-half domination, Queensland were marched downfield with tackle resets until the Blues' line was cracked by a dummy-half dart from the scheming Hunt.

The improved Queensland were about to make a mockery of the Blues' series dominance, sweeping downfield, from right to left, before Hunt crossed for his second try. They took a 20-12 lead into the final 15 minutes of the game.

Then it was the Blues' turn to be helped by the constant tackle count resetting of referee Gerard Sutton. New South Wales managed to close the gap through a clever Moses grubber kick, pounced on by Blues bench debutant Api Koroisau. Game 3 was set for a classic State of Origin finish, with the Maroons calling on all their spirit to hang onto a 20-18 lead.

A penalty on halfway to New South Wales with two minutes remaining saw Mitchell inexplicably line up to take a 50-metre shot at equalising. The kick was on line, but fell short, into the arms of Ponga. The Maroons held on for an unlikely victory with a classic all-in push and shove developing as the full time siren sounded.

The balance of power had been shifted in the Maroons favour by a few critical changes in player availability. The Blues had dominated the first two games to win the series on the back of slick service from the halves to their lethal outside backs. With Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai missing, Moses and Wighton failed to maintain that link.

The Maroons, lifted by the presence of Hunt and Ponga, were able to make breaks in the Blues defence that weren't evident in the first two games.

One of the features of Queensland's decade of dominance was how few games the stars of that era missed through injury or suspension. The Blues have the players to win more series than they lose over the next five years, but Game 3 proved just how tenuous any apparent dominance can be.