I’m not one to hide when I’m wrong. Freddy, mate, my friend. I was wrong.
Following a shock loss to the Maroons last Wednesday, Brad Fittler resisted the urge to make wholesale changes. Some, myself included, questioned his decision to stick by his makeshift centre pairing and the underperforming Nathan Cleary.
He did make the changes he was forced into, i.e. moving Crichton into the run on side and adjusting his bench accordingly, but ultimately it was the changes he didn’t make that won the game and kept the series alive.
Nathan Cleary overcame horror performances in the Grand Final and Game One of the Origin Series to produce a Man of the Match performance last night.
Cleary produced a line break, line break assist, ran for over 100 metres and should have been credited with two try assists (Fox Sports have but Nrl.com says otherwise). He also kicked the QLD’ers into submission. 475 kicking metres and two forced line drops out pinned the QLD’ers down in their own end.
Most “experts” had his Origin rating between 8 and 9. If he wasn’t the best player on the field he was certainly in the top three or four.
Simply put, Cleary silenced many of his doubters with an absolute gem of a performance with all the pressure in the world resting on his young shoulder.
Fittler also got the Cody Walker selection spot on. I was shocked when Keary was dropped after a decent effort in Game One. That said, Walker was absolutely wasted on the bench in the opener and this seemed a choice of either/or rather than both.
Walker was outstanding. I had him a solid 8.5 out of 10 in my unofficial rankings. He was very difficult to tackle, had a line break and a try assist. He played second fiddle to the halfback which was actioned to perfection.
Starting Payne Haas over Paulo was genius, albeit obvious. Haas and Saifiti were monsters in the opening stanza and contained Josh Papalii extremely well. Despite going down 4-0 early on, the Blues won the ruck early and held it for the large majority of the contest.
Paulo looked far more dangerous from the bench. Yes, the game was more free flowing but he rediscovered an offload and looked fleet of foot.
Dale Finnucane was an absolute machine. 123 metres from the bench seems like unders compared to his impact. He was sorely missed in Game One.
Issah Yeo was brilliant on debut. He too went over 120 running metres and made 15 tackles without a single miss. He played his role perfectly and will surely retain his spot for the decider.
Nahan Brown didn’t play big minutes but made an immediate impact. With his very first run at Origin level he sent Jake Friend flying. He played a cheeky part in the scuffle that saw Haas and Tino sin-binned. That was to be expected.
Early on it looked as though Fittler’s decision not to shake up his centre pairing may come back to haunt both him and the state.
Dane Gagai easily handled Wighton in the early stages. Wighton’s rushing in created space for Gagai to put Coates over for the opening try. Gagai looked primed for a HUGE night and the cracks were there.
To the Raiders superstar’s credit, he overcame the shaky start and more than held his own against the QLD ace. Although he did miss the seven tackle, he did make 74 metres which included a line break and three tackle breaks. All whilst keeping Dane Gagai to just 66 metres. I’d consider that a fair shift.
As for Gutherson, he too held his direct opponent quiet. Although Capewell did run over 150 metres, apart from the one line break, I can’t remember a whole lot of impact.
Despite the 34-10 victory, not everything went the Blues way last night, but a large majority of what did came on the back of Fittler’s decisions.
Cleary was great. Walker was amazing. Haas and Paulo were far better suited to their adjusted roles. Yeo and Brown were both very good on debut. The much maligned centre pairing stood tall and probably held Gagai and Capewell to a draw at worst.
Whether or not this squad can produce that kind of performance again next week, well I guess we’ll have to see. As of now though, Fittler has helped keep his state in the running for a third straight series victory.