Maloney’s week-to-week club form with a string of clubs, most recently Penrith, can be iffy, but he is reliably outstanding on this stage: the proverbial ‘Origin player’. He could almost be an honorary Queenslander.
During the decisive first hour of Sunday’s match, it seemed Fittler had called in not one Maloney but three or four. The veteran was producing brilliant tactical kicks followed by rank forward passes, slick passes and then silly conceded penalties.
Whatever happened, good or bad, Maloney didn’t stop talking. By half-time, as the New South Wales team sat in a dressing-room circle, the coach couldn’t get a word in while Maloney talked, and talked, and talked like Don Bradman used to bat, and bat, and bat.
By then, New South Wales were 12 points ahead, a similar lead to the one they gave away in Origin I in Brisbane. This time, halfback Nathan Cleary was injured and could not return for the second half, which meant Maloney could run the game on his own. His two penalty goals took the Blues away from Queensland during that key period, and he remained the most influential presence on the field.
Another of Fittler’s changes to come up trumps was Tom Trbojevic, the Manly speedster returning from injury. Trbojevic is the one person in New South Wales who has the unusual distinction of having won more Origin matches than he has lost. His athleticism in scoring three tries would have impressed curious AFL fans in the west, and added thousands more to his admirers in league.
All of the other rabbits Fittler pulled out of his hat performed well, as did his nucleus of Boyd Cordner, Tyson Frizell, Damien Cook, Jake Trbojevic and James Tedesco. It was the most dominant New South Wales performance in memory, two-and-a-half weeks after they were laughed out of Brisbane, and a week after Fittler was derided for his vivid imagination in changing his course.
State of Origin has always been predictable only in its sheer perversity. It went to Perth, and of course the place was flooded by rain. The founding myth of this contest is the punishment of hubris.
Historically, New South Wales has more routinely suffered that curse. But on this night, when Queensland travelled west looking unbeatable and conducted themselves as such, they were doomed to lose.
It was notable that punters, perhaps recognising a kindred spirit in Fittler, had backed the gambler’s team into favouritism. Fittler’s shambolic operation, so soundly beaten in the first game, were favourites, because, going by Origin logic that, as underdogs they were bound to win.
Go far enough over the horizon, and you eventually get back to your point of origin; and the finale in Sydney on July 10 will be an eagerly-anticipated climax to a series that has already shown rugby league’s wonderful capacity for renewal.
The golden generation of players who retired has been replaced by new footballers with beguiling gifts. Whoever they are, Origin gives them its own intense, contrary spirit.
The constant rule, as it has been for nearly 40 years, is to expect the unexpected, and the more unexpected it is, the more it takes on the disobedient magic of inevitability.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.