Talk of NSW demise proves much ado about Nathan

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Talk of NSW demise proves much ado about Nathan

By Andrew Webster

So there you go.

Maybe Brad Fittler can coach, Nathan Cleary can play, and NSW does have enough Origin players who can come up with Origin plays in all-important Origin matches.

Perhaps being “Pantherised” isn’t just a mere representation of how many Penrith players are in the squad — it’s also a state of mind.

Since the narrow loss to Queensland in game one, there’s been much hand wringing and furious tweeting about the parlous state of rugby league in our fair state.

On Sunday night, Fittler’s side reminded all concerned why the Blues have won three of the last four series on his watch. Why didn’t we believe? We never do.

NSW’s 44-12 win at Perth’s Optus Stadium doesn’t just level the series but restores faith, for now, in the coach and halfback. The criticism has been fierce, as it always is when the Blues lose.

It was a dour victory, too, which was needed in the unexpected dewy conditions and understandable given what was on the line.

This was the night when Cleary showed us why he’s the most valuable halfback in the premiership.

His kicking game was fundamental to the result.


Close to the line, he was a genius, bending a grubber kick around Daly Cherry-Evans to find rookie centre Matt Burton for a try.

Nathan Cleary celebrates a second-half try as NSW streak away.

Nathan Cleary celebrates a second-half try as NSW streak away.Credit:Getty

As the match wore on, he kicked long and deep into the corners, heaping more pressure and fatigue on the Maroons.

Eventually, the dam broke with Luai scoring close to the line.

Then, with the flourish of his pen, Cleary underlined the result with two tries of his own, slipping through tired Maroons defenders on each occasion.

So brave in Sydney, Queensland faded badly as the Blues forced them into turnovers and penalties, and the avalanche of late tries no doubt inflicted some psychological damage heading into the decider in Brisbane on July 13.

Then again, the same was said in 2020 after the Blues won game two 34-10 before losing the decider at Suncorp Stadium. Wayne Bennett inspired the win in game three that year. Can Billy Slater do something similar?

The momentum ebbed and flowed in the first half with NSW taking a 14-12 lead to the break after Cleary curved in a conversion from the sideline after winger Brian To’o had scored.

In many ways, the three minutes of play that led to the try summed up how the Blues have attacked in this series.

They threw wave after wave of attack at Queensland, pressing their line, but each play looked sloppy and disjointed.

Sometimes, though, being pretty doesn’t always get the job done.

Referee Ashley Klein gave no less than three set restarts (he gave NSW just four in total in game one) and two penalties to the Blues.

The last one prompted Klein to dispatch Maroons forward Felise Kaufusi to the sin bin for 10 minutes, and it only took a few plays for the Blues to exploit the gap on that side with debutant centre Matt Burton coming up with a perfect no-look catch-and-pass for To’o.

The Blues were also much stronger defensively, particularly around the ruck with Jake Trbojevic tightening the screws.

Two pieces of Kalyn Ponga brilliance handed the Maroons the first-half points.

First, he threw a perfect short ball to Kaufusi, who scored the first try of the match. Then he got around Stephen Crichton, streaked down field and set up Munster for a try.

The late avalanche of tries may have caused some psychological damage for Queensland.

The late avalanche of tries may have caused some psychological damage for Queensland.Credit:Getty

As the players left the field, NSW back-rower Cameron Murray was asked about the Blues’ physical approach.

“We came to play,” said Murray.

When play resumed, the Blues had eight minutes to make Queensland pay even more with Kaufusi off the field.


The Maroons finally bucked under the weight of possession and field position with Daniel Tupou scoring out wide.

Onwards, now, to Suncorp Stadium where the Blues will attempt to snatch the series on foreign soil.

The only times NSW have won the decider in Brisbane are 1994, in which Fittler played, and 2005, when Andrew Johns put on a masterclass.

If this side can do it, maybe the questions about Fittler and Cleary will stop. Maybe.

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