The ageing Maroons and their dynasty looked shot to bits when the Blues raced out to a 16-6 lead with two quick tries midway through the first half but their new-look forward pack found a way to match it with their power-packed opponents right throughout a tense second 40 in which the Blues were held scoreless.
Queensland found one try to make things tense and then, right near the death, a second try with Johnathan Thurston’s ice-cold sideline conversion stealing the lead against the odds with three minutes to play.
The Blues monstered their opponents in the 20 minutes before halftime but looked frantic and nervous in their scoreless second 40 as they could feel the breath on their necks of their long-time tormenters coming for them.
The ageless Billy Slater was in everything in his first Origin for two years, defusing everything at the back, scheming in attack, lurking around the ruck, supporting every play.
Thurston proved he had what the Maroons were missing in Game I; despite looking hampered by a shoulder injury for much of the game he was the perfect foil for Cooper Cronk who was himself far improved from Game I.
The Blues now face the unenviable task of heading up to Suncorp for a Game III decider in hostile territory against a Queensland side with their tails up and ready to send Johnathan Thurston into representative retirement with one last win.
The Blues failed to capitalise on their early dominance and their game management in the second half was found wanting with too many rushed or frantic plays.
Of everyone it was their most experienced player in Jarryd Hayne who came up with the most questionable options in that period but the halves too, despite offering plenty in attack – especially in the first half – who needed to command the ball and get the team to the right parts of the field to shut the game down.
The start of the contest was more stop-start than the previous, frantic Game One opener with debutant Valentine Holmes knocking on from his very first touch in Origin and James Maloney gifting two silly penalties in the opening 10 minutes to put the Blues under pressure.
The second of those proved expensive with a left-side shift allowing Darius Boyd in the centre position to pop the perfect pass out to Holmes, who capitalised on opposite man Blake Ferguson coming in to tiptoe down the touchline.
The bunker couldn’t find conclusive evidence of Holmes’s foot scraping the chalk and the try was awarded.
Right after both coaches interchanged their respective pairs of starting front rowers, Maloney shot past Tim Glasby who was fresh on the field and from open space fired a pass out to Brett Morris to put the Blues up 10-6.
The Maroons launched a final assault on the Blues’ line in the shadows of half time and turned down a free two points from a penalty with 30 second to go in a desperate search for a vital try.
They could have, and possibly should have scored on two separate occasions in those 30 seconds but a pair of momentous try-savers – the first from Trbojevic on Cronk next to the posts, the second from Dugan on Morgan out wide – preserved the 10-point lead heading into the break.
The game-breaking play came in the 77th minute; NSW couldn’t hang on to Cronk’s cross-field bomb and handed the Maroons a scrum from 10 metres out. A shift left was unsuccessful but a shift right saw Slater’s pace and his deft pass onto Morgan (at centre for Chambers) who flicked the perfect offload back in for Gagai to level the scores.
Thurston’s sideline conversion was never doing anything other than curling back between the sticks to claim a remarkable lead and send his teammates into raptures.
The job wasn’t finished as NSW claimed the ball from a short restart but the Queensland defence held firm to send the series to a decider. – NRL.com Photo: NRL