NSW prop Payne Haas and Maroons lock Tino Fa’asuamaleaui were the men sent off in the wild State of Origin II brawl on Wednesday night, but it was two other men that played a central role in the game's biggest flash point.
The Blues thumped the Queenslanders 34-10 at ANZ Stadium to set up a decider at Suncorp Stadium in a week's time.
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A sometimes spiteful affair came to a head in the second half as Haas and Fa’asuamaleaui were both sin-binned for throwing punches after a wild melee ensued midway through the second half.
Queensland hooker Jake Friend had already been steamrolled by Blues interchange forward Nathan Brown, with the pair at each other's throats on several occasions.
And it was Friend's cheeky smack on the back of Brown's head that saw the Parramatta forward take issue with the Roosters veteran before things really kicked off.
Brown reacted to Friend's act by angrily grabbing the hooker's jersey by the neck, before players came in from all directions to get involved.
Fans labelled Friend a “grub” for his role in the incident that saw the two players marched to the bin.
Jake Friend is an embodiment of how every QLDer that puts on 9 is a grub😂😍 https://t.co/w8pSKwX7fD
— Monte-Allan (@MyMamasFavChild) November 11, 2020
Jake Friend started that little grub 😁
— JimToFriends (@JamesStart10) November 11, 2020
Tino out here with the anger issues
More importantly, Jake Friend doing Jake Friend grub things started all of it. I know his a Rooster but god he needs to get it out of his game. https://t.co/8uRZcvqLuv
— Jordan (@jordannoon) November 11, 2020
When the dust settled on the fracas that followed, it was Haas and Fa’asuamaleaui that were given their marching orders for seemingly throwing the first punches.
After the final whistle, Fa’asuamaleaui was seen given a dressing down by Maroons captain Daly Cherry-Evans, who seemed less than impressed with the young lock.
— NRL on Nine (@NRLonNine) November 11, 2020
Cherry-Evans could been seen pointing an accusatory finger at the 20-year-old, presumably reminding Fa’asuamaleaui that he needs to keep his cool in the future.
The unsavoury incident aside, it was NSW that dominated the contest from the off to set up a mouthwatering Game III at Queensland's fortress next week.
Cleary leads Blues to big win
Man-of-the-match Nathan Cleary was instrumental for the Blues, helping to mastermind a commanding 24-point win.
After a week of speculation over his place in the side, Cleary played a crucial role in the lead-up to the Blues' three first-half tries as they levelled the series at ANZ Stadium.
Maroons five-eighth Cameron Munster lasted just two minutes after being concussed following contact from Tyson Frizell, putting him in doubt for next week's decider.
Cleary entered the game with the unenviable record of being the first NSW half in history to go through his first six games without a try assist or linebreak assist.
After the Maroons crossed first through Xavier Coates, Cleary put the Blues on the front foot when the 22-year-old dummied and stepped his way through the line.
Two plays later Cody Walker spun and fended his way over on the right, as the five-eighth also starred in his own redemption tale.
Cleary's boot was then influential for the Blues' next two tries, as he regularly kicked early to corners.
Josh Addo-Carr's sprinting chase on his first kick gave the Blues field position, before the halfback found a stepping James Tedesco to score.
And when Coates dropped a Cleary kick just before the break, the Blues stripped Queensland for numbers from the scrum and Josh Addo-Carr crossed.
"I think we blocked that (talk) out pretty well this week," Cleary said.
"That's the pleasure of kind of being away in camp, surrounded by a great bunch of blokes, great coaching staff and just have to focus on ourselves.
"It's no different this week. We haven't done anything yet, still got a game to win up in Queensland."
Cleary wasn't alone in playing a key role for the Blues.
Jack Wighton claimed his first Origin try while Jake Trbojevic was damaging in defence, forcing errors with his up-and-under tackles that left Coates stunned.
Tedesco was also superb in his first game as captain, throwing the last pass for a Daniel Tupou try from a scrum
Again, the field position came from Cleary pressure on a Jake Friend kick that went out on the full.
And Walker continued his end-of-season form, grubber-kicking for Addo-Carr's second try as he provided real spark on both sides of the ruck.
Meanwhile, the Maroons desperately missed Munster, who was replaced by Ben Hunt at five-eighth.
They started the game well when Daly Cherry-Evans helped an acrobatic Coates cross with a bullet cut-out pass.
But they lacked spark and struggled for field possession after the first 15 minutes, with Josh Papalii scoring their only other try - again from a Cherry-Evans pass.
Regardless, coach Wayne Bennett insisted they could bounce back for next week's decider in Brisbane.
"They out-enthused us, much better than we were," Bennett said.
"I don't think anyone lost any confidence in themselves. They all know they can play better than they did tonight."
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