Brad Fittler’s decision to make six changes to the NSW side was vindicated after the Panthers-dominated Blues levelled the State of Origin series with an emphatic 44-12 defeat of Queensland in Perth on Sunday night.
Fittler reacted to the 16-10 loss in Origin One by selecting a new-look team that featured eight members of last year’s premiership winning Penrith side in the starting line-up and the move paid dividends.
The sides that have dominated Origin in the past have featured players who instinctively know each other's games from achieving success together, like the Maroons who won 11 of 12 series between 2006 and 2017.
In lieu of that, Fittler drew on the next best thing - team-mates from the club side that has dominated the NRL for the past three seasons.
Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary bounced back from his worst Origin performance in the series opener to his best as he engineered the seven-tries-to-two win.
Cleary scored two tries and laid on two more for former Panthers team-mate Matt Burton and Sydney Roosters winger Daniel Tupou, while Penrith five-eighth Jarome Luai also scored as the Blues ran the Maroons off their feet.
Besides Tupou, captain and fullback James Tedesco was the only other member of the NSW backline, as well as the only player in the Blues spine, without a Penrith connection and their combinations and understanding were evident.
The Blues led by just two points at half-time but it is often said that teams win the game in the first half and score the points in the second half – and that is what Fittler’s men did.
Cleary's domination earns him player of the match in Perth
The turning point was undoubtedly the sin-binning of Maroons second-rower Felise Kaufusi just before the interval and the Blues immediately took advantage with a Brian To’o try that was straight out of Penrith’s playbook.
The Panthers scored 33 tries on their left edge last season and Burton – the Bulldogs five-eighth, who was playing the left centre role he filled for Penrith last season - wound the clock back when he put To'o over on the stroke of halftime.
While Burton's kicking game often earns the most praise, he showed silky handling skills when he caught and passed the ball to To'o in one movement after Cleary and Luai had combined.
Old Panthers duo reunite for magical try
Stephen Crichton was playing right centre, as he does for Penrith, and he became heavily involved in the second half as NSW targeted rookie Queensland winger Murray Taulagi with towering kicks by Cleary and Burton.
There have been few Origin debuts as good as Burton's and Fittler faces a selection headache for the series decider if Latrell Mitchell and Jack Wighton are available.
Tupou’s 49th minute try came from a long Cleary pass after Taulagi had fumbled a bomb under pressure from Crichton and the Panthers centre capped an impressive debut when he put namesake Angus Crichton over for the final try in the 73rd minute.
In between, Luai scored in the 58th minute and Cleary crossed in the 63rd and 66th minutes, as the floodgates opened.
"It was pretty loud out there and under pressure you want to have people who are familiar with each other," Fittler said.
"The beauty of winning a few series is that blokes get to know each other like Teddy and Nathan and those sort of players and over time you build combinations. The more you win the easier it gets because they just know each other."
The NSW winning margin of 32 points was identical to their 38-6 triumph in Perth in 2019 as they bounced back from an opening game loss to win the series in Sydney.
The difference this time is the fact that the decider will be played in Brisbane on July 13 and the 1994 Blues are the only team to overcome an opening game loss at home and win the series by triumphing in the remaining two games away.
Among the changes Fittler made was calling up Panthers hooker Api Koroisau and moving Damien Cook to the interchange, and it was clear that both sides were looking for a significant impact from their benches.
Luai has nothing but class
The Maroons used two dummy halves with great effect in the series opener and the move paid immediate dividends in Perth when Harry Grant replaced lock Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and Ben Hunt moved to the middle for Queensland in the 22nd minute.
Felise Kaufusi scored the first try of the game for Queensland just two tackles later.
Fittler responded by sending prop Junior Paulo into the fray and the result was Burton’s try just two minutes later.
Koroisau credits club teammate Cleary with the win
While Paulo wasn’t directly involved in the try, he earned a six-again call on his first carry of the ball and put a stagger into the Queensland defensive line when he managed an offload on his second touch.
When Daly Cherry-Evans charged at Cleary, the Blues halfback grubbered behind the defensive line for Burton to swoop and put NSW ahead 14-12 at halftime.
Queensland never recovered and the Blues raced in five second-half tries to keep the series alive and cap a perfect weekend for NSW teams after winning the men’s and women’s Under 19s Origin on Thursday and the women’s Origin on Friday night in Canberra.
Match: Blues v Maroons
Game 2 -
Venue: Optus Stadium, Perth