Slater ruins Freddie's fairytale
Queensland 22 NSW 18
Brad Fittler's Origin comeback was ruined last night by two contentious Queensland tries and some Billy Slater brilliance.
For one tantalising moment during Origin II at Suncorp Stadium, the 32-year-old five-eighth looked like being handed the fairytale finish he missed out on three years ago as he forced his way over the tryline with the Maroons leading 16-12 and with 13 minutes to go.
But Fittler was forced back into the field of play. Blues winger Timana Tahu then just failed to score in the corner, and a few seconds later Queensland second-rower Dane Carlaw bagged the match-winner from a Darren Lockyer bomb.
Blues coach Phil Gould called for the sacking of referee Sean Hampstead after the gripping encounter which was watched by a ground-record crowd of 52,478.
NSW captain Danny Buderus also protested that Queensland chasers came from offside positions in their final two tries.
"They just took control in the second half, took their chances, a couple of good calls went their way," lamented Fittler. "We really didn't get back in the game after that."
Asked if he planned to play in Origin III, Fittler said: "We'll see what happens, there are players to come back."
Gould said his players had only themselves to blame for the loss but added that Hampstead should be kept as far away as possible from the final match at Telstra Stadium after several errors, including bungled tackle counts. "He's had his shot," Gould said.
Buderus screamed Blue murder after two crucial Queensland tries, to man-of-the-match Slater (63rd minute) and second-rower Carlaw (68th).
The Slater try, his second of the night, may have been controversial but it was also one of the finest seen in Origin football.
Forty metres out, skipper Darren Lockyer kicked ahead and Slater regathered on the fly, swerving, stepping and turning the defence inside out before kicking ahead to score for himself.
"It's just a spur-of-the-moment thing," said Slater, 21 tomorrow. "You've got Lockyer in the side, he puts the ball where you want it and you do your best to finish it off."
Hampstead passed the decision to video officials Tim Mander and Graeme West, who needed only a couple of viewings to decide the winger had been in line with five-eighth Lockyer.
After the try was awarded, hooker Buderus approached Hampstead, saying: "He was offside, he was offside."
Hampstead replied: "I'm not the video referee. They ruled him onside."
Six minutes later Carlaw came up with the ball after a Lockyer bomb, Hampstead not bothering with the video referees before awarding the try that gave Queensland a 20-12 lead.
Blues winger Luke Rooney did well to beat three cover defenders and score his side's third try but the Maroons hung on to keep the series alive going into Origin III on July 7.
NSW had begun the game in fine touch, Tahu scoring after only four minutes after Matt Gidley's grubber-kick bounced over the head of Queensland fullback Rhys Wesser.
The Blues dominated field position over the ensuing period but could not add to their total, and it was Queensland who scored next, Slater venturing infield and taking an angled run to score near the posts.
Coach Michael Hagan's side had done extremely well to be at 6-6 a minute before half-time, but centre Gidley's flick pass found its mark in Tahu right on the break, and the winger's second try was converted by lock Craig Fitzgibbon, who finished the game with 44 tackles.
NSW's six-point half-time lead was later described by Lockyer as "a kick in the guts", while Hagan admitted: "It sat us on our heels, that try before half-time. The players were a bit down on themselves."
The second half started with possession ricocheting from one side to the other near halfway, Queensland eventually coming up with the ball and Lockyer's sublime cutout pass putting debutant Willie Tonga over.
"Had we scored first in the second half," said Gould, "we would have put a lot of pressure on them.When you let sides run three tries in on you in State of Origin, you're probably going to lose the game."
Lockyer missed a penalty goal attempt in the 57th minute with Cameron Smith off the field, so when Slater sent shockwaves around his hometown of Innisfail to match the earth tremor there earlier in the day, it was down to halfback Scott Prince to put Queensland in front for the first time.
The ball sailed between the posts and Origin II moved into its championship period.
Then came Fittler and Tahu's near misses, Carlaw's try and Queensland's lap of honour.
"That's what everyone in Queensland wanted," Hagan said. "It typified the Queensland spirit."
Gould claimed in the lead-up to last night's match that Queensland had a disproportionate impact on the way the game was going to be refereed.
Last night Hampstead was not helped by the fact he lost his headset - for communicating with other match officials - when he collided with Fitzgibbon in the second half.
"There's no doubt he made some mistakes but we probably made more, and if we didn't make them we would still have won," Gould said.
"A couple of times he had his hand the air for the final tackle and it was only the fourth tackle. There were knock-ons that weren't called . . . that's a referee under pressure."
Asked about Hampstead's involvement in Origin III, Gould said he should be kept "as far away from it as possible".
QUEENSLAND 22 (Billy Slater 2, Willie Tonga, Dane Carlaw tries; Cameron Smith 2, Scott Prince goals) bt NSW 18 (Timana Tahu 2, Luke Rooney tries; Craig Fitzgibbon 3 goals) at Suncorp Stadium. Referee: S Hampstead. Crowd: 52,478.