Why Maroons must win Game I or face historic comeback

Queensland Maroons coach Kevin Walters has publicly and privately stressed the importance of winning Game I of this year’s State of Origin series.

And it is no wonder, when you consider the Maroons will have to do what they have never done before if they lose the series opener at Suncorp Stadium on June 5.

Since three-game Origin series began in 1982, the Maroons have won 23 of the ensuing 37 series. On seven occasions - 1982, 1987, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2013, 2017 – Queensland prevailed after losing Game I.

The winning Queensland Maroons team in 2017. Photo: QRL Media
The winning Queensland Maroons team in 2017. Photo: QRL Media

The telling statistic from history though is that in all seven of those comeback wins the Maroons had a match in Brisbane in either Game II or Game III.

That won’t be the case this year with Game I at Suncorp Stadium, Game II in Perth and Game III in Sydney.

If the Maroons lose Game I, they will have to make history with two wins on the road to claim the series.

That is why getting the team right for Game I is paramount for selectors Gene Miles, Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer and Walters.

Several months ago Walters hinted the selection philosophy to be adopted by Queensland this year would be to pick the best 17 players and find spots for them, even if they aren’t the preferred positions of the players involved.

That has always been the case in some regard for the Maroons and is why Darius Boyd played 23 of his 28 Origin matches for Queensland on the wing.

Darius Boyd in action for the Queensland Maroons. Photo: QRL Media
Darius Boyd in action for the Queensland Maroons. Photo: QRL Media

This year, however, the philosophy is likely to extend to the playmakers in the wake of the retirement of Greg Inglis and injuries to hookers Andrew McCullough and Jake Friend.

It is why North Queensland Cowboys halfback Michael Morgan has been spoken about as a possible centre selection this year and St George Illawarra Dragons No.7 Ben Hunt as a starting hooker.

The regular club No.9 at the head of the pecking order at the moment appears to be Cowboys rake Jake Granville. But if he is selected to start, that will likely push Hunt to No.14.

The Maroons will ask themselves the question whether they are more dangerous with a Granville/Hunt combination or with Hunt at No.9 and someone like Brisbane Broncos five-eighth Anthony Milford as the No.14. The latter seems more likely.

Ben Hunt in action in 2018. Photo: QRL Media
Ben Hunt in action in 2018. Photo: QRL Media

Aside from the history-making effort required if the Maroons do lose Game I, they will not believe such a feat is beyond them if that was to occur.

The seven comeback Origin wins from a 0-1 deficit are littered with feats that have gone down in Origin folklore. It is when legends confirm their legend-hood and where new heroes emerge.

Who could forget Game II of the 2017 series in Sydney for instance? When, after losing Game I of the series, the Maroons trailed 16-12 with four minutes to go.

A sublime flick pass from Morgan to Dane Gagai with less than four minutes remaining levelled the scores and then Johnathan Thurston, in his last game for Queensland and shoulder hanging by a thread, landed the pressure conversion from out wide to secure an 18-16 win.

Thurston kicks Game II, 2017. Photo: QRL Media
Thurston kicks Game II, 2017. Photo: QRL Media

With momentum on their side the Maroons went to Brisbane and prevailed 22-6 courtesy of a Valentine Holmes hat-trick.

My own personal favourite comeback series win for Queensland was in 1987.

New South Wales centre Mark McGaw broke Queensland hearts with a last gasp try on full-time to secure a 20-16 win in Game I at the then Lang Park.

The Maroons then went to Sydney and played NSW in a quagmire at the SCG; Wayne Bennett’s Origin career as a coach was on the line, after losing 0-3 in 1986.

It was a surging run by Paul Vautin with his red mop bouncing up and down like an over-excited wig in the second half, innocuous to some, that Bennett recalled as the turning point in a 12-6 victory as the Queenslanders grew an extra leg after Fatty’s fire and brimstone.

Back to Lang Park they came for the decider and an impish blonde halfback from Ipswich, playing just his third Origin game, stamped himself as one of the giants of rugby league with a man of the match performance for the ages to usher in a new era of Origin – the Allan Langer era.

So if Walters and his men fall behind 0-1 in this upcoming series, there are plenty of magic Maroons moments they can draw on to convince themselves that two wins on the road, and a historic achievement, is still possible.