Fittler's changes lead convincing Blues fightback

Blues coach Brad Fittler arrived in Perth hoping for a repeat of 2019, when he managed to follow a Game I loss with a victory and eventual series win after making mass changes to his squad for Game II. On that occasion, the Blues smashed the Maroons 38-4 in Perth, with Tom Trbojevic crossing for three tries, Josh Addo-Carr for two and Tyson Frizell another. Fittler didn't have the services of those three this time, with Trbojevic out through injury and the other two out through his own much-critised selection policies.

Still, in the relatively foreign environment of Perth's Optus Stadium, with a very healthy crowd cheering on their favourites, the shield was there for Queensland's taking. They had successfully frustrated the Blues attack out of Game I by controlling the ruck and limiting the forward impact of the Blues with a fast-moving, relentless defensive line, and they needed a repeat performance to wrap up the series.

New South Wales kicked off and just like in Game I Josh Papalii took the first hit-up of the game, this time Isaah Yeo wasn't knocked out in the collision. As the Maroons ended their first set of six, a "New South Wales" chant went up, but the crowd was soon silenced as the Blues had the wind knocked out of them with a series of brutal tackles.

The chant went up again as the Blues had the first attacking opportunity after a Cameron Munster kick was charged down by Nathan Cleary. The new Blues backline misfired with a wayward pass to the left dribbling over the sideline.

James Tedesco made the first line break of the game, but it was called back after Payne Haas was found to be in the way of the Queensland players as he walked back to an onside position. The ensuing Queensland attack was snuffed out when Brian To'o tackled Selwyn Cobbo into touch a metre out from the corner post.

The atmosphere in Perth was befitting this vital clash, as the Maroons tried to keep the pressure on by kicking long and early in the tackle count. Liam Martin was dispossessed in a tackle, with Felise Kaufusi caught with his hand in the action by the captain's challenge. Another stripping penalty soon followed and Cleary kicked a penalty goal to give the Blues a 2-0 lead after 11 minutes.

The Blues were starting to make big territorial gains with the ball in hand, with both teams kept well apart and the ruck seemingly cleaner as well. New South Wales were showing much more intensity in defence this time out and soon charged down another clearing kick, this time Maroons fullback Kalyn Ponga came up with the spoils.

Queensland had another try-scoring opportunity as To'o allowed a grubber kick to bounce dangerously in the in-goal area. Cobbo flew through, but was unable to do any more than knock the ball forward.

With the Maroons' defence looking hesitant by comparison to their swarming urgency in Game I, the Blues rolled down the field with their seven-tackle set, only for Tedesco to slip over, trying to run the ball on the last tackle.

Cameron Murray with stitches in his ear and head wrapped in black bandaging, sat on the Blues bench after passing his HIA. Angus Crichton, his replacement, had already copped a boot to the mouth. It was Origin business as usual.

Harry Grant was introduced to the game and moments later a backline movement from the Maroons saw Kefusi run off a short Ponga ball to cut through the defence and crash over for the first try. The backpedaling Jarome Luai, who had made a couple of early errors, allowed the back rower through.

It wasn't long after that the Blues struck back through an orchestrated grubber kick play, on an early tackle. Cleary propped before the line and kicked cross-field, where debutante Matt Burton timed his run and showed safe hands to scoop up the ball and dive over. Cleary's conversion saw the Blues lead 8-6 with 12 minutes remaining in the half.

Two minutes later the Maroons spread the ball to their left and Luai's Panthers teammate Stephen Crichton missed a tackle this time to allow Ponga to slice through. He passed the ball to Valentine Holmes who found Munster, who raced away to put Queensland back in front.

With seven minutes left before the break, Fittler sent Damien Cook out into the middle. Ponga spilt a bomb and the Blues threw the ball around frantically before the play broke down and a scrum was awarded to New South Wales ten metres out from Queensland's line. A series of six again calls saw the Maroons defence stretched to breaking point, but they scrambled desperately before diffusing a Cleary bomb to the corner. With the whole of Queensland breathing a sigh of relief, the Blues were awarded a penalty as Holmes was deemed to have obstructed the pursuit of Daniel Tupou.

Referee Ashley Klein then made sure he would be mentioned in dispatches by sending Felusi to the sin bin, for repeated infringements by the Maroons. Captain Daly Cherry-Evans protested passionately, pointing out to Klein that all the penalties were for different reasons.

Queensland could hold on no longer and the old Panthers combination of Burton and To'o combined on the left to put the winger over in the corner. The lead had changed hands once again. It was almost inevitable with the endless possession gifted to the Blues by Klein in the lead up to the break. The score 14-12 at halftime.

Early in the second half, Blues centre Burton put up what was possibly the highest and ugliest kick in Origin history, one that Maroons winger Murray Taulagi had no chance of catching. He managed to round up the ball off the deck and the Blues spoiled the good work by being offside on the next tackle.

The Blues's next attacking raid saw them spin the ball from one sideline back to the other, with no real penetration through the defensive line. The Maroons defence, although outnumbered, were able to slide and number up. Stephen Crichton crossed after a slick dummy-half interchanged with Junior Paulo, but Crichton's initial pass was ruled forward.

Cracks were starting to appear in the Maroons' wall and another spilt bomb saw the Blues on the attack again. This time a looping Cleary pass found Tupou unmarked and he jogged over for a Blues try that took the score out to 20-12 once converted.

Fittler's changes were having an impact, with Trbojevic rallying the Blues defence, Angus Crichton running hard up the middle, Cook fresh after Koroisau's start and Burton looking dangerous out wide. Cleary's kicking game was back on song and the Blues were chasing doggedly. The Maroons were losing the territorial battle, and it was noticeable that the sting was out of their attack, and their defence was waning.

Burton made a run down the left and from the play-the-ball, Luai loped towards the defence, seemingly lost, before a skip and a step saw him dart through a half gap between Dane Gagai and Siosifa Talakai. Cleary converted and the Blues went to 26-12.

Haas was back out for a fresh stint, his runs always punishing, and the Blues defence swarmed as desperation crept into the Maroons game plan. Burton tore the ball from the grasp of Gagai and a couple of tackles later Cleary stepped his way through some tumbling defenders to score next to the posts. The Panthers halfback, who had shouldered much of the blame for the Game I loss, converted his four-pointer to take the Blues to an unassailable 32-12 lead.

A Holmes short kick-off that went backwards summed up the night for Queensland and Cleary poured vinegar into the wound with anther slick-stepping solo try shortly after. The score was now embarrassing, at 38-12.

There was still enough time on the clock for the Blues to send Angus Crichton over next to the posts. Another of Fittler's changes enjoying his opportunity, as Cleary kicked the score onto 44-12.

The series locked at 1-1, the decider to be held in Brisbane and plenty of egg left on the faces of Fittler's detractors. The changes made to the Blues line-up were part of the spark which resulted in the impressive turn-around. The only question remaining would be why he waited until Game II to get his selections so right.