A 22-point masterclass from Nathan Cleary has helped New South Wales crush Queensland 44-12 at Optus Stadium to square up the State of Origin series.
With their backs against the wall, New South Wales dismantled their bitter rivals’ defence with a scintillating second half performance to tee up a series decider at Suncorp Stadium.
Staring down a series defeat, the Blues overcame some Queensland haymakers in the first half to deliver knockout blow after knockout blow in the second.
Penrith star Cleary bent the game to his will, setting up one try and scoring a couple of his own late while maintaining a perfect kicking record.
After copping criticism for a sub-par game one, Cleary’s man of the match performance won him the plaudits of both his coach and his captain.
“I thought he read the game really well, setting up the try early with the kick. They were coming and put a lot of pressure on us with their outside defence,” Blues coach Brad Fittler said.
“I think by the end of the game, they were pretty fatigued and and Jarome Luai just took advantage – that’s what they can do, they do it at Penrith – but I think he set it up early with a few decisions early.”
New South Wales captain James Tedesco said while he thought some of the criticism of Cleary in game one had been unfair, his response was excellent.
“He came out the week after and carved up for Penrith and he brang (sic) that confidence into game two,” he said.
“That shows what a champion player he is. He’s awesome to play with and he was probably our best tonight.”
In front of a sell-out crowd, the Blues started brightly as Cam Murray charged down Cam Munster’s attempted clearing kick, only for the bouncing ball to evade Cleary.
Up the other end, Brain To’o made a try-saving tackle in the corner, darting to his left to push a leaping Selwyn Cobbo out of play, before a Cleary penalty drew first blood for the Blues.
After the rollicking start, both teams settled down into a steady rhythm, before a 10-minute pow-wow infused the game with some life and brought the crowd out of their shells.
Queensland were rewarded when they caused an overload on the right wing, with Kalyn Ponga feeding Felise Kaufusi, who survived almost being de-pantsed on national television to score the game’s opening try.
The joy was short-lived, as Cleary conjured up some goal-line magic with a bouncing, perfectly weighted, unorthodox kick under-pressure in behind the Maroons defence for debutant Matt Burton to collect and score.
But Queensland regained the lead almost instantly, as the Port Headland-born Ponga broke a tackle wide on the left and slipped a pass to Valentine Holmes, who in turn fed Munster to gleefully sprint home for the third try in eight minutes.
The Blues launched a series of raids on the try-line, causing referee Ashley Kline to repeatedly issue six-agains for infringements against Queensland and the whistle-blower finally lost patience in the shadows of half time.
Kaufusi bit the bullet for an infringement and was sent to the sin-bin after Junior Paulo was held up on the line, and the Blues made their extra man count before the break as To’o crossed in the corner.
Queensland began the second half under siege as Daniel Tupou (tackled) and Angus Crichton (forward pass) were denied tries for the Blues.
However, New South Wales did not have to wait too long to extend their advantage, as Cleary drew a defender and looped a pass on the right wing for Tupou to gratefully accept and cross untouched.
Just as Queensland had turned the screws on them in game one, it was the Blues’ turn to influence proceedings, pairing tight defence with zippy passes to open up space out wide.
The resolute defence Queensland thrived on in game one turned to water with each Blues attacking wave as New South Wales began to cut through their opponents with ease.
Jarome Luai sunk Maroons’ hearts even further after exposing some pedestrian defending by breaking a tackle and racing away for the Blues’ fourth try of the night.
If the game was not over by the time the Mexican Wave made an appearance with just over a quarter of an hour to go, it was certainly over when Cleary exploited some lacklustre defence to dart over under the posts, before scoring another try in similar circumstances minutes later.
Rather than take their foot off the gas, the Blues continued the pile-on late as Crichton put the icing on the cake late with his side’s seventh try of the night.
New South Wales 44 (Tries: Cleary x 2, Burton, To’o, Tupou, Luai, Crichton. Conversions: Cleary 7-7 Penalty: Cleary 1-1)
Queensland 12 (Tries: Kaufusi, Munster. Conversions: Holmes 2-2)
Referees: Ashley Klein, Phil Henderson, Dave Munro, Grant Atkins.
Crowd: 59, 358 at Optus Stadium.