Joseph Sua’ali’i ends Origin 1 after 7 minutes: can Michael Maguire’s New South Wales be judged on what happened next?

Mike Meehall Wood
Joseph-Aukuso Sua'ali'i sending off

New South Wales' Joseph-Aukuso Sua'ali'i leaves the field after being sent off during Game 1 of the 2024 State of Origin series against Queensland

Any discussion of Game 1 of State of Origin 2024 starts in the seventh minute, when New South Wales outside back Joseph Sua’ali’i was unceremoniously marched for a high shoulder to the face of Queensland fullback Reece Walsh. 

It was 6-0 to Queensland at the time and, despite a valiant middle period from NSW, ended 38-10, a record score for the Maroons in Sydney.  

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, who shifted to 1 with Walsh concussed out of the game, scored a hat trick and Daly Cherry-Evans, who only gets better, claimed the man of the match. Suaalii, on the other hand, will depart to rugby union at the end of the year on the back of what is likely the worst Origin debut of all time.  

He can take cold comfort that, if he messes up so badly again while playing for the Wallabies, at least nobody will see it given the parlous state of rugby union in Australia. 

He flew out of the line to meet Walsh and while the Broncos superstar slipped slightly, the Roosters centre was already off his feet and out of control. He left himself in the lap of the gods entirely by his own actions and deserved everything he got.

It was rugby league’s biggest opening stages brain fade since Ben Flower’s downwards punch on Lance Hohaia to start the 2014 Super League Grand Final. The tackle was that egregrious, that stupid and that flagrant even Australian referees, who operate on a different planet to the Super League as far as head contact goes, could not ignore it. 

Ashley Klein has often been criticised in NRL circles for his big-time persona, but on this occasion, he was the best possible man to have in charge. This was a massive moment that could have been bottled, but wasn’t. 

Queensland were already ahead at the time thanks to an early try from Ben Hunt, but the complexion of the game inevitably changed after the send off. 

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In many ways, it actually lifted the pressure on New South Wales. With Game 1 on home turf in Sydney, it was incumbent on them to set the series up given their awful record in Brisbane – two wins in Brisbane in a decade – and a neutral venue game next up in Melbourne. 

A man light, however, it was all about grit and determination, ensuring that 2024 didn’t start with an embarrassment even if it was highly unlikely to be a win. 

Ahead of kick-off, the central tactical question was always going to be about NSW, with new coach Michael Maguire tasked with coming up with a plan to counteract a Queensland side that had all the consistency coming in. 

Over the last two years, Brad Fittler’s Blues attempted to win by aping the Penrith Panthers, a plan always doomed to fail when only half of the champions were in the team and you were facing essentially an all-star defence. 

Maroons coach Billy Slater has generally eschewed any tactical chat at all. His media bytes were often of a tautological nature – “We’ll back Hamiso to be Hamiso” – or focussed on the emphemeral Queensland spirit rather than how anyone might win a footy game. 

That was just cosplay, however. Slater outcoached Fittler multiple times over, putting on defensive masterclasses to shut down a star-studded attack and empowering his own galaxy to go out and win the games. 

Prior to the send off, that looked like repeating itself. Daly Cherry-Evans, 35 and 23 Origins, snuck around on a short side and found Ben Hunt, 34 and 18 Origins, to open the scoring. 

When you have that expertise and experienced, you set the team up to exploit it. Slater, who learned at the feet of Craig Bellamy, knows this implicitly and backed it in from day one. 

With 13 v 12, it was always going to work, and duly did. But what of NSW? We didn’t learn much about how Madge Maguire wants this side to play with the ball or off it, but in terms of spirit, we got plenty. 

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Maguire, also a Bellamy student, has built a career on grit as much as guile, which is why he got the job with NSW. 

The NRL has largely moved on from his style of coach, but in rep footy, where contact time with players is limited, he can instill culture in a situation  

His New Zealand side showed this in spades last year in defeating the Kangaroos to win the Pacific Championship and, based on 74 minutes of adversity here, NSW have it too. 

One reading of this game will be that. In the last two years, NSW had all the stars but less dig lost to a Queensland side at a talent disadvantage but all the resilience in the world. 

But this Blues outfit, which had lost plenty to injury – Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic, Cam Murray, Dylan Edwards to name just some – and then had a man sent off played above themselves and showed the ephemeral Origin spirit. 

Liam Martin laying out J’maine Hopgood late on, Brian To’o pulling down a runaway Xavier Coates and Spencer Leniu charging gamely into walls of Maroon late on were all the sort of play that wrote that new Blues mentality all over Homebush. 

Another reading might be that Maguire picked a side exactly to do that, but little more.  

Jake Trbojevic, the hardest working man in rugby league, was captain and the rest of the team followed in his image.  

Cam McInnes, tough as they come but fundamentally limited, was preferred over Isaah Yeo, the classiest 13 around. 

Maguire’s selection would have lived and died on the ability to score points with the team that he picked, but after the red card, it was never likely to matter anyway. 

There’s no counterfactual, so that theory remains untested, though it may be worth mentioning in passing that the Blues had 35 tackles in the Maroons’ red zone to 20, but scored just twice, both off kicks.  

On the other side of the ball, NSW held Queensland for over a half’s worth of footy, from the 25th to 67th minute, but that could never last. 

Hunt, who had spent an hour on the bench, came back on andstrode through for a second try, shredding a knackered defensive line that showed just how much playing a man light had taken out of NSW. 

Two later tries for Xavier Coates and Tabuai-Fidow, who completed a hat trick, added gloss to a score that made it look more like a game in which someone was sent off in the first ten minutes. 

The question of whether NSW are better under Maaguire remains outstanding ahead of the trip to Melbourne in three week’s time. Suaalii made sure of that. 

Queensland, as they do, played the game in front of them – just, this time, it was a lot easier. 

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