Queensland's quest to maintain that 'something special'

"The day Caxton Street isn't a sea of maroon is the day Origin dies," Gary tells ESPN. Gary is a Maroons tragic and part of a throng of passionate Queensland supporters, surging down the iconic stretch of road, just after 5pm on D-Day (Decider Day).

All are well imbibed- not with beer (yet), but hope.

"There's something about the Cauldron mate," Gary declares, alluding to that potent brand of Maroon magic, the special stardust of a home ground decider. Hundreds of fans are braving the latest edition of pandemic related jitters, adamant the indefinable special something will indeed be present for the Maroons when Game III kicks off in a few hours time.

A lot of things need to go the Maroons way if they are to rescue the series. The bigger question here is whether- win, lose or draw- State of Origin continues to retain that special something. Amid all the talk of eligibility, unavailability and who's got the best utility- a stat. The concept has captured hearts and imaginations for 42 years. How long can this be sustained in an era where the best players want to play for their country of origin more than their state, and when blowout scores are happening with increasing frequency in the game's most elite arena?

"It brings back some mixed memories," Blues legend Benny Elias tells ESPN as he casts a sentimental glance up Caxton Street, having popped out of a function at Darling and Co.

"Origin is all about Queensland getting a chip off its shoulder. That feeling of getting one over them, we didn't feel it until 1985 under 'Turvy' Mortimer. I remember that year vividly, getting fruit pelted at the bus as we came down Caxton Street. That's when we got a chip of our own."

Maroons legend Billy Moore offers his thoughts on the matter to ESPN shortly after enjoying a brotherly embrace with Elias.

"Origin won't die in Queensland, even if we lose 50 straight series," Moore enthuses.

"You go back to that era, before 1980, and you go to the years since- the amount of times the Maroons have pulled it out of the fire. These players have created an aura that will endure even in the toughest times."

D-Day 2022 might not be the toughest of times, but the absence of star five-eighth Cameron Munster has more than a few Queensland fans and former greats nervous.

"We've been in these positions before," Trevor Gillmeister tells ESPN. "Wally Lewis missed games, Peter Jackson, Darren Lockyer missed games. It's not end of days for the boys."

So why can Queensland win Trevor?

"Billy Slater strikes me as the new Mal Meninga. Belief. He's all about it. It's not about over coaching them, it's about preparing them for the occasion. Calming them down, keeping it simple, timing their run," Gillmeister replies.

"They're 34 of the best players in the world- they're not there for no reason. It comes down to whether or not they relish it."

Amid all the hope and trepidation, the procession to Suncorp Stadium is well and truly on by 6.30pm. Inside the ground it quickly becomes apparent that they'd be hanging from the rafters if that didn't spark an OH&S nightmare. By 7pm it's already a wall of sound. Then 8pm comes and the fireworks and LED lights are unleashed. The player announcements on the big screen help underscore the magnitude of the assignment facing the Blues, or according to Queensland fans; 'The Boos.' Nathan Cleary receives the biggest thumbs down from the parochial locals; a clear nod to the fear his formidable abilities command. Tom Dearden is confirmed to be starting at five-eighth, and the 21-year-old Cowboy is saluted in ear-splitting accordance.

The Blues take the field, accompanied by Metallica's 'Enter Sandman.' A nod to their nightmarish threat, and a decent amount of noise, more than befitting the occasion.

Enter the Maroons. Not sure which song they run out to; it's inaudible.

This journalist is grateful to not have a lot of interviewing left to do. The likelihood of hearing anything clearly for the next several weeks is low. A classic cauldron greeting for the home state has spines tingling from the Milton to Caxton Street end and beyond. Origin is alive in Brisbane. The next 80 minutes will help determine the strength of its pulse.

Cameron Murray earns the first crowd rebuke of the evening, despite having clashed heads with Corey Oates. He leaves the field, groggy, receiving no mercy from the bleachers.

A minor melee less than two minutes in. Matt Burton given a 'welcome to Suncorp,' by a hunting pack. Selwyn Cobbo floored by an elbow in the process. Two minutes, two head knocks. Cobbo's maiden series comes to a premature end, Murray is also ruled out. Lindsay Collins follows. Queensland's assignment just got tougher. Did anyone ask for a bit more feeling tonight?

Tom Gilbert comes on, joining Dearden in the baptism of fire scenario. Pat Carrigan and Jeremiah Nanai are making the most of starting chances and playing with early intent. Burton's first kick is miscued, and not long after Josh Papali'i is crashing over, only to be denied. Game on.

The Blues are unsettled and their first genuine attacking set falls flat. Kurt Capewell is playing right centre and making proper inroads on the right edge, alongside a hungry looking Dane Gagai. A chip and chase results in a repeat set, halted only by another minor melee. With 12.5 minutes gone, the Maroons have seen more attacking ball than they did across 80 minutes in Perth. Ben Hunt finds Dearden, who throws a majestic ball to another Cowboy in Val Holmes. Early pressure pays off. The crowd goes..well.. I'm sure you understand.

A pause here to draw breath and applaud the early input of Dearden. Early days but his temperament appears tailor made for the arena.

Queensland's 50-thousand-strong extended bench is cheering red zone yardage as emphatically as they do the attack at the other end. The Maroons are absorbing the energy and turning it into big gains. The Blues are absorbing their share as well, and their first venture into the opposite 20 bears fruit. Jarome Luai pouncing on a Cleary kick. Six apiece.

20 minutes gone. Blues fans are finding their voice and sharing it with their Queensland counterparts. James Tedesco splits the midfield. Papali'i is off after a committed stint. Harry Grant is in for him- a nod to the fact this opening hasn't gone to script for either side.

The Blues have settled into the game and are showcasing their danger. Cleary finds another repeat set on the right, Gagai halts a Burton dash on the left. The pace is frantic.

'Queenslander' and 'New South Wales' chants are competing as fiercely in the stands as the players on the field. A sense of rhythm has been established. Both sides look like bursting it open. Dearden- in everything- finds Oates with a forward pass. It's almost as if the Blues teleport back down the other end. Another foray, another repeat set. And another. Half an hour in and the first real hush of the night from Maroons fans. Perhaps remembering what excessive defending did to their side in Perth. Some latch onto a scapegoat for the momentum shift. "Coooommmmee onnnn Kleiiinnn."

They can blame referee Ashley Klein all they want, but it's not his gig to stop Jacob Saifiti's charge to a try on debut. 12-6. It would appear debutantes on both sides of the Tweed are taking to the arena.

There are standouts on both teams but once again Cleary is pulling the strings. A check on the tackle count shows Hunt has already made 24. A figure that surely compromises his ability to share the load with the Daly Cherry-Evans and Dearden.

Cherry-Evans finds the middle of the boot with 1.43 on the clock, doing a 'mini Matt Burton' on Daniel Tupou. It's the spark the Maroons need. Seconds remain when Grant pirouettes and grubbers for Capewell. The Broncos champion claims a ricochete off Luai, and a fitting reward for a fine first half. Holmes misses the kick. 12-10.

(Please note: Halftime show wrap sacrificed in order to draw breath).

Shots fired!

Just 61 seconds into the second half and we have the following numbers: one line break, one chip and chase, six-seven punches, two sin bins. Ponga bursts, Gagai and Burton brawl and get marched, Cherry-Evans almost scores.

The crowd loses its collective mind. Some football ensues and Cherry-Evans continues to inflict damage with his kick. Hunt relieves Stephen Crichton of possession and it's 'Queenslander' from end-to-end and side-to-side. A set restart and a Blues penalty sees the attention of the masses again turn to Klein. Whichever side you're on, set restarts are hard to stomach at a level of football where every inch counts.

Energy remains high with 30 minutes remaining. Tedesco is materialising everywhere. Ponga is electric. Gagai and Burton return, amid a Maroon surge. Papali'i is denied for a second time after a Nanai knock-on. The Blues need to dig deep, and they are.

Gagai and Burton come together and it's like the premiere of Godfather 2. The Maroons are still riding the wave of crowd fury with 25 on the clock. The right edge continues to probe without luck, and even the most diehard Queenslander must applaud the tenacity of the famed Blue wall.

Another breach attempt is on when Hunt peels off a 40/20. It's applauded like a try. He's found some petrol in the second half. Another attacking set comes and goes, assaults deployed left and right. Another repeat set. How long can the wall hold?

With 20 to go, Cleary takes a quick pause before his dropout; Suncorp vents it's displeasure. Dearden scythes and jinks. He's stopped. It goes right and finds Ponga. He steps, he weaves, he scores. Suncorp outdoes itself. That might be 'Danger Zone' playing in the background. No way of knowing for sure. A note here to remember to ask ESPN about its dry cleaning budget, as a beer drenching from the seat behind ensues.

16-12 with 17.43 to go. The energy in the stands is perhaps best described as 'beer spilling euphoria.'

52,385 appears on the big screen. Every soul in attendance is at full voice and in full swing. Perth is becoming a distant memory for Freddy and the Blues: this time they're hanging in as opposed to blowing out. Carrigan snatches a one-on-one off Siosifa Talakai. Grant burrows over like it's his debut all over again. It's awarded. Holmes lines up the kick. Klein blows his whistle. No try. The chorus of boos would have all the local dogs howling in their kennels.

Undeterred, the Maroons press on. Another repeat set earned. Just 11 on the clock now. Tom Gilbert shows the type of courage that got him here to pounce on a short drop-out. The resulting collision can be heard halfway up the grandstand.

Queensland are muscling-up in defence and are cohesive in attack. No effort on either side of the ball is ignored by the crowd.

6.30 to go. The attack continues. The margin remains four points. Ponga has notched up 15 tackle breaks. The Blues remain alive.

What must be the 400th chorus of 'Queenslander' erupts with 3.12 on the clock. It's replaced by a gigantic 'Ooohhh' when Tino Fa'asuamaleaui hits Tupou at 2.57. It's the start of a powerful set. The Blues are surging. Crichton steps a few, they're on the front foot. It goes to Cleary- here comes the dreaded spiral bomb.

Enter Hunt. An audacious charge down, a desperate charge downfield. Isaah Yeoh in equally desperate pursuit. It's one of the slowest sprints in history, possibly because it unfolds in slow motion before a packed- and delirious- cauldron. The Maroons have done it. A million dollar player with a million dollar play to claim rugby league's multi million dollar jewel. Stardust.

Three games of football between two states, lasting 240 minutes every year and spanning 43 years; showcasing everything that makes this product the envy of other sports, and capturing the imagination of people who don't even like sport. All unfolding at a ground with the rap sheet of a genuine fortress. A pulsating experience for all present.

Veteran sport journalist Robert 'Crash' Craddock is sipping on a bottle of water in the press box about 20 minutes after fulltime. ESPN asks if he enjoyed the night.

"I'm getting too old for it," says an exhausted and exhilarated Crash.

"I don't quite know how to describe it. I'm out of words, and I'm numb."

Some final numbers now. 1995, 1997, 2006, 2011, 2020, 2022. An underdog Maroons outfit defies everything and everyone, wrestling the shield off a formidable New South Wales squad.

"That's what Queensland is all about; hard work and digging in when our backs are against the wall. And we did it again tonight," Hunt says post-match.

No one really knows what the magic is, but it's real, and Origin lives on.