As NSW celebrated winning the State of Origin series against Queensland on Wednesday night, it became obvious some of the Blues stars weren’t there to enjoy the moment.
The Maroons defeated the Blues 20-18 on the Gold Coast to avoid losing in a series clean sweep.
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The result saw NSW clinch the series 2-1 and reclaim the shield after Queensland’s shock victory last year.
But as captain James Tedesco and the rest of the Blues team lifted the Origin shield with delight, fans noticed three star players who were major contributors to their two wins were absent.
Injured trio Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Daniel Saifiti — who were all ruled out of game three — were nowhere to be seen as NSW celebrated their triumph.
Cleary and Luai were sensational in the halves in the opening two games and were key to NSW dominating those matches with a total combined scoreline of 76-6.
Saifiti was also outstanding, scoring a try in game one and running more than 120 metres in both games.
In previous years Cleary, Luai and Saifiti might have been able to attend the final game of the series to celebrate with their teammates.
Blues stars Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Daniel Saifiti weren’t able to join the celebrations with their Blues teammates. Photo: NRL PhotosSource:Supplied
But due to strict Covid-19 restrictions, the injured trio were notable absentees in the post-match celebrations.
It sparked awkward scenes as debutants Mitchell Moses and Api Koroisau, as well as 18th man Nicho Hynes, posed for photos with the shield even though they didn’t play in a victory.
Rugby league fans pointed out the unfortunate situation and called on the NRL to change their rules and allow the victorious team to be presented the shield after the match that seals the series, rather than waiting until after game three.
It's a shame this is the #Origin series winning photo that will be celebrated in history. Surely Cleary, Luai and Saifiti deserve to be remembered for their role in winning the first two games. Should the @NRL look at changing the shield ceremony if a team wins the first two? pic.twitter.com/DmU7nYGLv9
Congrats to the NSW Blues. Why was that both Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai weren't there in the photo even if they were just wearing their Casual clothes. 😳
After all, both of these guys have steered the NSW Blues where they are right now that unfolded the series by 2-1. pic.twitter.com/eoRGwGKwQX
It is a huge, huge shame that neither Cleary or Luai will be on stage to lift the trophy. The photo will just look weird when we think back to this series. #Origin
1 Kazillion percent.
Luai, Cleary & Saifiti who played in both winning games aren’t in Shield Photo 🤷🏻♂️
Give them Shield, then another Special Golden one for the rare sweep if they nail it 💪
Queensland spoiled NSW’s chance of a first clean sweep in 21 years to show there is still some life left in the Maroons.
Coming into the game on the wrong side of a 76-6 combined score, the combined score was still the most lopsided in history at 94-26 but the scoreline that mattered was that the series ended 2-1, helping the Maroons save face.
Standing between NSW and a series sweep was Ben Hunt, who was elevated to Queensland’s starting line-up and played superbly in a man of the match performance.
Hunt, who has been criticised in the past for his performances — particularly the kick off drop that cost the Broncos the 2015 Grand Final — and whether he lives up to his $1 million pay check for the Dragons, put in the Origin performance of his life.
Left out in game one and coming off the bench in game two, Hunt was outstanding, dragging the Maroons over the line — literally.
The hooker scored coming out of dummy half in the 56th minute at 12-8 down to wrestle the lead from Blues, before doubling up in the 63rd minute.
Maroons legend Billy Slater said Hunt “owned the big moments”.
Former Blues hooker Michael Ennis said Hunt was “terrific” from the opening whistle with his service from dummy half.
“He could be a great number nine if he wanted to move there permanently,” Ennis said.
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