The NSW Blues avoid being swept, winning 24-10 over the Queensland Maroons in game three at Accor Stadium.
Losing the first two matches saw the Blues lose their third series in four years, yet the new look Blues squad finished the series on a high note last Wednesday night.
With fans and media predicting a clean sweep, Brad Fittler brought out a squad that proved a bright future in the Origin era, with significant performances from key players, and a debutant that was maximised with the right players around him.
The Inner Sanctum breaks down the five biggest takeaways from the final game and the 2023 series as a whole.
Blues got the ‘Best’ case possible
Bradman Best debuted with a lot of high unrealistic expectations ahead of the finale in Sydney.
After all the biggest upsets historically happening in the Fittler era, a clean sweep in his resumé would have definitely put the coach in a grey area of how he has been as the man that replaced Laurie Daley.
The first player that would have got the blame from the fans and media is Bradman Best, however, the situation is the complete opposite.
The pure centre selections previously in Fittler’s run have not worked out very well, with Kotoni Staggs failing to find a place when Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic were injured in 2022.
The Newcastle Knights centre showcased an incredible performance, scoring two tries and immediately making himself noticed on the biggest stage.
Best also had 12 runs for 129 running metres, three tackle breaks, two line-break assists, and a line-break.
Three minutes into the clash, Best was destined to score the first try of the game before the bunker denied the centre, declaring he was offside while chasing the grubber kick placed by Cody Walker.
The Blues sparked individual greatness from their fullback James Tedesco, who had struggled to find success in the previous system implemented by Fittler. Josh Addo-Carr also made noise off the back of the ball movement on the left edge and Brian To’o found significant touches and rhythm in the game with his yardage and carries out of the Blues half.
Cody Walker was the main reason for the powerful left edge attack, using his football IQ and perfectly timing passes and drawing in the defensive line to thin out the chance of transition defence in the open field, leaving Best or Addo-Carr with just AJ Brimson in the red zone one on one.
The ball playing was also successful thanks to a change in the lock position, with Cameron Murray playing the link man role, while Isaah Yeo played to his strength, putting the offence in their best spots, which allowed Mitchell Moses and Walker to attack with their running game and control the half field set game.
Jake Trbojevic and Reagan Campbell-Gillard also proved valuable with their returns to the Blues squad. Their carries and consistent physicality on both sides of the ball.
The possibly the Blues’ most consistent player Liam Martin played aggressively defensively, denying the Maroons’ attacking flow.
‘Teddy’ is still the best fullback
James Tedesco reminded the rugby league world how good he is on his day.
After struggling to adjust to a confusing play style and with tweaks made by the coaching staff, Tedesco was able to get touches and inject himself into the game the way we have seen him at his peak.
Making his 22nd consecutive appearance for New South Wales, The Sydney Roosters fullback proved huge to avoid being swept against a very red-hot Queensland side that made only two changes from their previous two games.
Considering the reports that Fittler’s time as the coach was at a crossroads and Tedesco as the fullback, many suggested two-time premiership winner Dylan Edwards to take his place.
With 18 runs for 247 running metres, 11 tackle breaks, two line breaks, and a try assist, Tedesco was one of the most valuable players in the Blues’ statement win.
Tedesco’s involvement throughout the series has been a major talking point.
In game one the fullback had 29 receipts, eight passes, and 24 runs for 217 metres. In game two, Tedesco was more involved, finishing with 31 receipts,13 passes, and only ran 20 times for 175 metres.
As a support player and operating left to right, game three was ‘Teddy’ at his best, finishing 28 touches and 11 passes. His performance proves that he needs touches everywhere on the field to be constantly engaged on the offensive end.
Tedesco’s playmaking and speed were not maximised in the half-field set in this year’s Origin series. When maximised he saw what the star fullback can produce, the passage that led to Bradman Best’s second try for the night a prime example.
Tedesco put the game away with an incredible lane run and drew the defensive line all over the place by just being involved in the play.
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The ‘magic man’
Cody Walker’s early grubber kick that was a foot back from being up 6-0 in the first three minutes of the game set the tone for the Blues on the offensive end.
Direct at the line and being aggressive saw a huge turnaround in the series and the future of the Origin arena for Walker, making his presence felt by playing a perfect pass to Addo-Carr before the winger broke open the field on the left edge with a perfected kick and chase effort that would put New South Wales up 10-6 in the 20th minute.
The Rabbitohs’ five-eighth would keep the Blues heading in the right direction, organising another try for the left edge to dominate the game.
Walker was able to exploit Queensland’s right edge defence throughout the entire night, setting up Bradman Best with a short ball for the debutant’s first try of the night.
The crafty playmaker made his return to the Origin arena a successful one, finishing the game with three tackle breaks, a line break assist and a try assist.
The value of Reece Walsh
Queensland’s attack struggled with gaining gravitas to win the third and final game of the series.
The result of Reece Walsh’s suspension meant the Maroons had to a replacement, deciding to put Titans fullback AJ Brimson in his position.
The last time we saw Brimson in Origin was the infamous 2020 series defying the odds against the Blues.
Three years later, the fullback was caught out defensively throughout the game in different schemes, including one on ones, block plays, and sweeping actions.
Struggling to get involved offensively, the Maroons had to rely on centre Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow with sparkling offence on the left edge, getting past the Blues’ right edge defence.
Harry Grant often changed running lines and lanes unpredictably with Daly Cherry-Evans and Cameron Munster being the central pieces for ball movement to find their backline players on the edge.
When Ben Hunt was subbed on the field, Queensland was able to create the spark it needed to keep itself in the game, driving up the field with tough carries and opening up the game with isolation one on ones.
In the first two games, the Maroons found themselves often running sweeping plays out to Walsh using his speed and quickness, as well as his running technique to hold out the Blues’ defence for a perfect amount of time before finding his teammates for easy looks and damaging quick points.
Outside of the unorthodox ball movement in open space, the Maroons also found success in their kicks, finishing the series with seven tries off kicks. Tabuai-Fidow often found success playing centre in the Origin arena out-leaping winger Brian To’o and batting the ball back or receiving the ball throughout the series.
The first try of the game saw this play happen, finding Fifita on the receiving end of the continuation, barging over James Tedesco to put the ball over the line.
Tabuai-Fidow was heavily relied upon in this series with his try-scoring and carries with the football. He is now up to five tries in four Origin matches.
Origin is a war, not a battle
History and context in the Origin arena have shown that looking for a quick fix will not win the shield at the end of the series every July.
Adjustments and planning are crucial, which was the difference between the Blues only winning 24-10 in this series and why the Maroons under Billy Slater have now built a back-to-back series run.
It should be expected that the Blues start with a clean slate when it comes to building their Origin squad out for the short term and the future.
No one’s spot is guaranteed and tough calls will need to be made, which saw Reece Walsh replace Kalyn Ponga and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow replace Dane Gagai.
Playing form, building winning habits, and having the right attitude is everything in professional sports, especially rugby league.
Scouting talent and how you understand the game through the eye test also says everything about someone’s knowledge of the game.
Greg Alexander after game two stated that Damien Cook played centre in game two ahead of Cameron Murray because of his speed. It is worth noting to add that Murray played the centre position when playing in rugby union before making his way to the Rabbitohs through their junior development programs.
If Fittler is going to win any more series in the foreseeable future that he is the coach, he has to understand how to maximise the players he is using, even the new players that are picked and chosen to replace someone who is out of form, injured or suspended.
The Blues Great needs to know what his players do on the field, where they are best used and to create a system and lineup that has fundamental principles and identity on both sides of the ball.
What has worked for Fittler in his tenure is a fast, heavy ball movement, direct, attacking team that can get out of their own half with tough carries by either the backline or forward pack, playing 80 minutes of defence, and willing to scramble when they are on the backlot on their try line.
This is while having players like Tedesco roam around the field and the playmakers and key ball carriers and movers play left and right, especially simultaneously.
The aspects of the game that has not succeeded include a slowed-down half-field offence that relies on out-the-back pieces and not challenging players like Nathan Cleary, who will continue to play one-dimensionally with his default kicking game and short running stints.
For Queensland, it needs to put pressure on the offence it is going up against.
In game three, Daly Cherry-Evans adjusted in the second half to blitz out of the line, however, that does not work always for obvious reasons.
Origin is about matching and exceeding, setting the platform first, and the Maroons failed to do that early on, which they were able to do in the first two games.
Being suffocated with the same offensive formation and play repeatedly, considering they were able to easily counter the Penrith style offence in the two series Slater has coached is concerning, but not enough as it was the final game of the series.
If there is an area of improvement for Slater’s squad, stick to what works.
Playing Ben Hunt as the third playmaker in the middle let Harry Grant create for the majority of the game worked, and it changed because of a bizarre substitution taking David Fifita out for the Dragons halfback.
The Blues play mobile bully ball, and Fifita is a player that needs to play the entire game, as he can create with the ball in his hands and leverage one on one plays against small halfbacks with bad defensive reads. It happened a couple of times with Mitch Moses in game three.
Expect Origin to get shaken up even more than it has, regardless of what we thought about the changes this year