Queensland captain Cameron Smith after the NSW win. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images The series loss sinks in for Billy Slater and Justin Hodges of the Maroons. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
The Blues celebrate their 2014 State of Origin series win. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
After eight serene years of being able to create and execute seemingly at will, Queensland’s State of Origin dynasty ended in a moment of fruitless frustration, the kind of pointless arm-waving that had previously been reserved for their downtrodden opposition.
With precious time ticking away, Johnathan Thurston lost his cool with Josh Reynolds, adding a forearm to the face in the tackle (it was a night of many forearms) before the pair circled each other like pitbulls ready to tear each other into tiny pieces.
NSW won the crucial penalty, the game was now as good as over, and Thurston would later admit it was hardly his finest hour. “I apologised after the game for my actions. That was the heat of the moment. I’m better than that,” he said.
The uncharacteristic outburst was Thurston dealing with the realisation that finally, after eight barely believable years, this runaway train was finally going to come to a stop. For so long it seemed like it could simply rumble through blue wall after blue wall, stopping only at Milton to pay homage to Wally and the brewery.
But dynasties in sport don’t last forever. Queensland’s run was always going to have a full stop but for the players that now face the prospect of a whitewash if they lose in Brisbane, that was scant consolation for the fact they were the ones on watch when the fortress was breached.
What began with Darren Lockyer pouncing on a loose pass in 2006 translated into one of the greatest stretches of sporting domination in Australian history, no matter the code or creed. The fact that Origin has become the pinnacle of the game, where rugby league soars to super-human levels of skill and durability, only adds to the historical significance.
Nobody that grew up watching or playing Origin from the eighties onwards ever thought something like this was possible. Even when NSW won three series in a row, when the very concept of Origin was being questioned, the notion they could win another five was ludicrous.
On Thursday, children as old as eight will climb out of bed in the Sunshine State to the news a side they thought invincible had been brought to its knees. Parents, let them down gently. It used to happen all the time.
And so Mal Meninga and his veteran players, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston, were confronted on Wednesday night with questions about legacy and dynasty and their place in the puzzle. How were they to digest it all? How was everybody else? Could it really be over?
More than anything Meninga seemed to feel privileged to simply be there for the ride, which significantly downplays his influential role as a coach, mentor, motivator and leader of young men.
“I’m just so proud of these players and what they’ve achieved over the years will probably never be repeated again. We think we can go on forever. It wasn’t our night tonight,” Meninga said.
“I’m lucky. When you look at the annals of history, some of these players will be remembered as some of the greatest that have ever played the game. Cameron Smith will be remembered as the greatest hooker ever. History will say Johnathan Thurston is one of the best halfbacks ever, Billy Slater, Sam Thaiday, Greg Inglis, Justin Hodges.
“It’s not the end of the world. We’ll still fight another day. But I feel very lucky to be involved in this great group of men.”
Little did he know it at the time but Meninga would gradually harness a golden generation of players after taking charge of the Origin program. In Darren Lockyer, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis, his team, at stages, contained five players that could easily be considered candidates to join the ranks of the Immortals.
The dynasty had its various faces. Some wins were scrappy, grinding affairs. Others required miracle moments at the end, which Queensland seemed to be able to conjure at the snap of a finger. Other nights they just dished out some good old-fashioned floggings, where the majesty of Inglis or Lockyer was awesome to behold.
They had always found a way out of the deepest of holes. But not this time. It was Trent Hodkinson, who wouldn’t have even been playing if Mitchell Pearce had opted for a night in on the couch, that schemed his way past Daly Cherry-Evans and into history.
Smith said it hurt – “empty” was a word used later by Nate Myles – but had little hesitation in putting this team, in its various stages and formations, at the very top of the list in Origin and maybe the game overall.
“It hurts. It always hurts to lose an Origin game and it hurts 10 times more to lose an Origin series. A lot of those guys in there have never felt that before,” Smith said. “I could be a bit biased but I believe this is the greatest Queensland side if not the greatest rugby league side that has played the game.”
He may well be right, even if some of its ageing warriors could no longer rage against the dying light as the stars finally aligned for NSW. Their victory was undoubtedly aided by some Queensland injuries, before and during the game, but so have the Maroons profited from NSW misfortune at times over the years.
Exactly where Meninga’s men sit in the pantheon of rugby league, or Australian sport as a whole, warrants further examination. And on the night the curtain finally came down on a run of Origin success the likes of which will never be seen again, Meninga had this to say to NSW coach Laurie Daley.
“Well done. Congratulations. Got me.”