Queensland stars Ben Hunt and Kalyn Ponga have returned to the Maroons starting side and denied the Blues their first series whitewash since 2000, powering the underdogs to a gripping 20-18 victory on the Gold Coast.
Ponga shrugged off a groin injury to return to fullback for his first match of the series and Hunt shifted from the bench to start at hooker, in two moves from under-fire Queensland coach Paul Green that transformed the Maroons.
Ponga and Hunt combined in the 64th minute to score a thrilling try that ultimately proved the match-winner.
Ponga made a stellar line-break from 70 metres out, tore down the right wing as he burnt NSW five-eighth Jack Wighton and linked with winger Xavier Coates on his inside.
And while Blues fullback James Tedesco performed a phenomenal tackle on Coates amid a frantic chain of passes, Hunt ensured the Maroons’ brilliant passage of footy resulted in a try in the following play.
The Dragons skipper received the ball from Kurt Capewell on the left edge and sliced through a gaping hole in the Blues defence, before a successful Daly Cherry-Evans conversion pushed the Maroons out to a 20-12 lead.
Hunt completes second half double
Ponga then arose for another critical play when gun NSW centre Tom Trbojevic burst through the Queensland line in the 73rd minute, the Maroons clinging to a 20-18 lead.
Ponga opted against tackling Trbojevic, which would have left Tedesco unmarked on his right, and instead showed exquisite timing to bat down Trbojevic’s attempted pass to Tedesco.
Hunt finished the match with 41 tackles and two tries, while Ponga tallied 182 metres and a line-break, as the two returning Maroons filled Queensland fans with hope to finish a losing series.
An emphatic Hunt said Ponga was his man of the match in a post-game interview on Nine.
“He’s an exceptional talent,” Hunt said.
“He started our sets really well and on the back of our attack he made it really crisp and he just added a lot around the middle there and really directed our forwards around. He was really good.”
Hunt’s shot in the No.9 jumper largely came as a result of injury, after Storm weapon Harry Grant was ruled out from the last two games of the series due to a hamstring strain.
St George Illawarra teammate Andrew McCullough beat Hunt to the No.9 jumper for Origin II, before Hunt took over for the final game of the series.
“He showed what he can do at No.9 and I dare say he will be putting his hand up for that role next year,” said legendary Queensland fullback and current selector Billy Slater.
Former champion Maroons hooker Cameron Smith agreed that Hunt had shaken-up the battle for next year’s Queensland No.9 jumper.
“He’s played a lot of representative football in the nine position. Played some time there from the interchange bench,” Smith said.
“You couldn’t pick him there for Game One. Harry Grant was fit and he’s probably Queensland’s No.1 dummy-half, first-choice dummy-half.
“But … there’s got to be some question marks next year over where it goes with the No.9.”