A Nathan Cleary masterclass has led NSW to a 44-12 win over Queensland in Perth to square the State of Origin series at 1-1.
The star No.7 set up two tries, scored two of his own, nailed a perfect eight from the tee and caused Queensland constant grief with his kicking game to slowly wear down Billy Slater’s side.
The dominant victory followed an upset 16-10 loss in Sydney with NSW now chasing a win in Brisbane’s game three to seal the series from 1-0 for just the fourth time.
NSW captain James Tedesco said Cleary had faced unnecessary criticism after the Sydney defeat but showed his champion qualities by “putting on a clinic”.
And coach Brad Fittler also gave his halfback the stamp of approval.
“I thought he read the game really well,” Fittler said.
“He set up the try early with the kick (when) they were putting a lot of pressure on us with their outside defence. And by the end of the game they (Queensland) were pretty fatigued.
“So him and Jarome (Luai) just took advantage. That’s what they can do – they do it at Penrith. But he set it up early with a few (good) decisions.”
Cleary was put on report in the 70th minute for a solid tackle on fullback Kalyn Ponga that forced the star Maroon off the field for a head injury assessment.
Maroons No.6 Cameron Munster will undergo scans on his injured left shoulder, but he’s hopeful to recover in time for the Origin decider.
Queensland conceded five tries in the second half, but coach Billy Slater insists his players didn’t give up.
“I don’t think they threw the towel in,” Slater said.
“I think it’s probably more concentration than complacency. We lacked a bit of concentration in our roles.
“It wasn’t any one player, it was pretty much across the board.”
The Blues kept Queensland to 20 points or less for an incredible 14th consecutive game, the Maroons’ attack potent early but simply starved of opportunity.
Queensland enjoyed just 29 per cent of the territory and 41 per cent possession and had just six tackles in the Blues’ 20-metre zone compared to the Blues’ 33.
Tries to Felise Kaufusi and Cameron Munster, both set up by Ponga, put Queensland ahead 12-8 approaching halftime.
But the Blues responded, Brian To’o’s crucial try coming after six consecutive sets as referee Ashley Klein penalised Queensland’s attempts to slow down the ruck.
Kaufusi was the fall guy, his sin-binning coming just before To’o’s go-ahead four-pointer on halftime.
And while they didn’t cross again during the 10 minutes he was off the field, the hammering Queensland’s defence took eventually told.
Debutant Murray Taulagi dropped a towering Cleary bomb and the halfback then floated a pass for Daniel Tupou to score.
Another Cleary kick had Ponga trapped in goal before his halves partner Jarome Luai beat second-gamer Jeremiah Nanai’s tackle to score.
And soon after Burton stripped Dane Gagai of possession, Cleary scored his first Origin try in his 12th game.
He wasn’t finished, stepping through two defenders to notch a double and continue Queensland’s pain in Perth after a 38-6 loss at Optus Stadium on their previous visit in 2019.
To’o ran for 228 metres while only Pat Carrigan (107m) cracked triple figures for Queensland.
It justified Fittler’s sweeping changes that saw a record-equalling seven Penrith players starting as well as the Panthers 2021 premiership winner Burton.
“I think the biggest compliment you can get as a coach is when you make a few changes or decisions, and they go out and do what they’re supposed to do,” Fittler said.
“Some people lost their position. We worked hard to make sure it wasn’t in vain.”