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25 Jun 2018

State of Origin Game Two: Five things we learned

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1. Billy Slater - return of a legend

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2. Latrell Mitchell, the young Greg Inglis with a lot to learn

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3. Kalyn Ponga - welcome to Origin

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4. Referees, Referees, Referees

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5. The start of something special?

It's been a while coming, but NSW has finally notched their second Origin series win in 13 years, and first since 2014, with a closely contested win over Queensland in an enthralling contest at a packed ANZ Stadium. 

With penalty tries, concussions, line calls, hard hits and deft touches all in tow, what did we learn from this contest?

1. Billy Slater - return of a legend

I mentioned in the preview that for Queensland to get close to a win they would need something special from one of their players. Enter: Billy Slater. Age, injuries and time out of the game has done nothing to stop him from producing a brilliant performance when his team needed it the most.

His return to fullback for Michael Morgan immediately made the Queensland attack look ten times more threatening than it did in game one. Within the first few minutes he was already causing issues for the NSW fringes. By the 14th minute he had James Roberts and Tom Trbojevic coming in at him off their line which turned a neutral offensive into a try for Valentine Holmes in the left corner. He had a hand in the second try as well, a second-man play sending Dane Gagai in to score on the right edge, while he set up Holmes for another break off a kick return in the second half. 12 runs, 93 metres for two try assists; he was at his best.

One more year?

2. Latrell Mitchell, the young Greg Inglis with a lot to learn

The young Roosters centre has found himself coming of age in this series, with some strong plays offset by some steep learning curves. 

The power which has seen his resemblance to Inglis showed in the first half when he bustled over Will Chambers to the line from a few metres out to score a try.  As he's showed before, he's hard enough to stop on the go from 20 metres out, let alone two. He supplemented this with a steaming line break later in the second half with his flick pass just missing Joshua Addo-Carr.

His defensive presence, however, was a bit of a mixed bag. He made a couple of jarring tackles, throwing the Queensland offense into two minds and resulting in a couple of errors. However, a needless error on a 20m restart gifted Queensland some vital territory and he subsequently made a crucial mistake in the second half when he came up off his line and allowed a Queensland overlap which saw Valentine Holmes score in the corner to bring the ledger to within points.

Mitchell will definitely be better for the experience, and with some work expect him to give Queensland defenses and attacks real problems in the future.

3. Kalyn Ponga - welcome to Origin

Kevin Walters brought the young prodigy on in the 28th minute and straight into...the back row. Unaccustomed to the change from his natural position of fullback, he took it in his stride. 

His first taste of Origin probably won't be one he would like to remember, overzealously coming in off his line to concede a penalty for offside, which led to a try for the Blues in the ensuing set. Early in the second half he played at a kick from James Maloney which restarted the tackle count and saw Latrell Mitchell score a four-pointer. 

Those jitters aside, he played his heart out, making 28 tackles in just over 50 minutes of football. He also made seven runs for 89 metres, showing the ability to break the line and send some crisp cut-out passes. He made a brilliant line break in the second half, nearly going past James Tedesco to help Queensland set up a play. In the forwards or at the back, he has that something special.

While Billy Slater more than likely exits the fray, the Maroons can know the future will be in good hands.

4. Referees, Referees, Referees

More (more?) refereeing decisions were thrust into the spotlight during game two. 

Take 1. The 10th minute is where the film started, with Dane Gagai going over in the right corner to open the proceedings for Queensland, with an on-field call of try. However, the bunker saw it differently, with Gagai's right boot appearing to catch the line as he touched the ball down. Whether the two different frames showing the angle of his boot touching the line and where he touched the ball down were simultaneous was of some debate. I wasn't quite sold on it but anyhow; the decision was overturned. 

Take 2. In the 30th minute, James Maloney's grubber kick saw Boyd Cordner set up it pick as he was running towards the line, only for Ben Hunt to clip him as he looked destined to grab the ball. After several replays, a penalty try was correctly ruled for the first time in Origin since Mal Meninga did so in 1981. The professional foul for Hunt was ruled out accordingly. 

Take 3. With Queensland going at the Blues' line this time, James Roberts this time impeded the Queensland attack in almost identical fashion. Tom Trbojevic would easily clean the ball up in any case, but the needless hit by Roberts would see him sent to the sin bin for the remainder of the game for a professional foul. No penalty try was awarded.

It's rugby league - two out of three ain't bad?

5. The start of something special?

James Maloney's tears after the game said it all. Amongst some younger "baby blues" he is a veteran who plays with a veteran instinct and well under pressure. They were only up by four points, one man in the sin bin, their captain concussed, and a relentless opponent at their line in dangerous territory. But they relented. This team has some fight in them.

It is only one series. It is only the first in four years and the second in a long while. And they have still have areas to improve on (see: defensive fringes). But the freshness of their look and the way they have played under rookie coach Brad Fittler has reinvigorated the Origin series and created more of an even contest than it has been in quite a while. Let's hope it continues. 

There's one game still to go, however, and if you ask Queensland, there is no such thing as playing for pride. 

What did you learn from the Blues' 18-14 win at ANZ Stadium? Let us know in the comments below.