13 hours ago
He's the man
On the northern side of the border, they look on him as a messiah. Andrew Johns thinks he's from another world.
League officials stare at him in awe and see dollar signs.
Whichever way you look at him, Darren Lockyer is the key man in this year's State of Origin series.
The Queensland and Australian captain did not win Origin II on his own, but without him the series would be dead, and NSW would have their noses in front for the first time ever in State of Origin.
With Lockyer back at five-eighth, the Queenslanders believe they can come from behind and wrap up the series at Telstra Stadium on July 7.
While history may be against them on several counts, great players like Lockyer have a habit of defying it.
On the eve of Queensland's stirring 22-18 victory in Origin II, former Australian captain Andrew Johns was asked who he thought was the greatest footballer he had played against.
"Lockyer," he said, without drawing breath. "He is on another planet."
Johns - himself rated the best in the world by many but recovering from a serious knee injury - said it was Lockyer's vision and anticipation which set him apart.
And it was on display at Suncorp Stadium this week.Lockyer was not at his peak. It was only his second match back from injury, and he played with a protective guard around his still tender ribcage.
His kicking game was rusty. But he still engineered the three second-half tries which got Queensland over the line.
The key play arose from an exquisitely timed chip-kick which sent 20-year-old Billy Slater into the clear for his amazing try.
Slater got the plaudits for one of the greatest ever individual Origin tries, but it couldn't have happened without his captain's perfect sense of timing.
"Lockyer being the great player he is saw me leading onto it," said Slater.
"He put the little kick in for me and I was nearly offside.
"That's the thing about playing with great players, they have that vision, they put you in those spots.
"Probably anyone else and I would have been offside because they wouldn't have got the kick in on time."
"Playing with great players just makes you play that much better."
It was the moment that turned the match, putting Queensland in front for the first time with only 15 minutes left on the clock.
The impact of Lockyer and the comeback of Brad Fittler ensured Origin II was a far more watchable game than the opening match in Sydney three weeks earlier.
The Sydney game was a slugfest, memorable chiefly for the Shaun Timmins field goal which sealed the Blues' 9-8 victory, the first ever "golden point" victory in Origin football.
Origin II was a seven-try stunner, played at breakneck speed in front of a Brisbane record crowd of 52,478.
It was a marvellous spectacle - just what League needed after the off-field dramas of this season.
It put the focus back on football, and virtually guaranteed that this series will have the biggest aggregate crowd ever.
For that, and the prospect of record viewing figures on television, the game must thank the two playmakers at five-eighth.
Fittler became only the fourth man (after Queensland legends Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga and Allan Langer) to play in 30 Origin matches.
Three years ago his farewell was ruined by Wayne Bennett's inspired decision to bring Langer back from club football in England for the decider. Queensland clinched the series with a 26-point win.
Fittler answered the call from NSW coach Phil Gould for this match, hoping that he could go out in style.
"I don't believe in fairytales any more," Fittler said after the match.
"I've taken that word out of my vocabulary."
He has not yet decided whether he will play in Sydney, though he said on the Footy Show last night that he had enjoyed it and was inclined to play again.
"I thought he was outstanding to do what he did. I was proud of him. He showed to me and rugby league again he's a class act."
For the sake of the spectacle, he should play. There is plenty on the line.
Queensland will be bidding to become only the fourth team in the 24-year history of Origin to win the series after losing the first match.
But to do it, the Maroons will need to break their duck at Telstra Stadium.
They haven't won there in eight attempts since the ground was opened in 1999, a year ahead of the Sydney Olympics.
If they don't, NSW will slip ahead 12-11 in Origin series and the matches will be tied at 35 each.