Mitchell Moses, New South Wales and how State of Origin turns the NRL into an individual sport

For about two months of every season, the NRL sacrifices almost everything it’s got on the altar of State of Origin.

Rightly or wrongly, everything else fades into the background for the pinnacle of rugby league to take centre stage.

The matches themself change. They can still be tough and willing, but when 34 of the game’s best players are carrying the fatigue of the sport’s most intense matches, it’s going to throw the vibes off.

Which makes it even tougher if you’re New South Wales, a state searching for heroes to save the series.

As the same annual debates about scheduling, player workloads and injury tolls flare up again alongside the constant hype machine that surrounds the series itself, games like Monday’s showdown between Canterbury and Parramatta take a back seat.

Every Bulldogs-Eels game can feel big to some degree because their shared history will bind them together forever.

This one had some extra juice to it, though, enough to get more than 45,000 through the gates to mark the largest-ever regular season crowd between the two old rivals.

It was the biggest non-finals crowd for a Sydney game in a decade and proof that even Stadium Australia can find a little bit of soul when two of the old tribes go to war.

Canterbury’s win was rollicking and dramatic, resilient and well-earned, especially given their injury toll. They’ve got some flash footy in them and a fair bit of ticker to back it up.

But unless you’re of a blue and gold or a blue and white persuasion, that was always going to be secondary.

Parramatta halfback Mitchell Moses wasn’t earning double time, but he still had the most to gain from a public holiday’s work.

Halfback speculation follows a New South Wales defeat like lightning follows thunder and Moses had been earmarked as a potential replacement for Nicho Hynes for Game II in Melbourne from the second the whistle blew to end Game I.

He didn’t knock the door down with his showing against Canterbury but it’s still ajar.

Moses and Clint Gutherson’s return from injury coincided with the Eels snapping a five-match losing streak but Parramatta are still the team who developed enough bad habits during that time to get their coach sacked and who are struggling to fill their back line out at the moment due to injuries.

As good as they both are, neither can fix things overnight.

There were nice moments for the halfback, like a tricky flick pass to Bryce Cartwright that led to a try to Will Penisni, and some nice interplay with Dylan Brown for another score to Blaize Talagi, but this was not a match designed for Moses to dominate.

The Bulldogs were on top for much of the second half as Parramatta were forced on the back foot. They stayed in the game for as long as they did because Canterbury took a while to find the right touches — the Dogs had four tries disallowed as they created chances, but struggled to finish them.

Parramatta as a whole struggled to take the few chances they had late to win the match, which interim coach Trent Barrett made a point of stressing was not all on Moses, but function can override form in the search for the right combination at Origin level.

Moses can provide many of the things the Blues missed in Origin I — a truly powerful kicking game, for example, or the ability to control a team’s attack with quality touches rather than quantity ones.

New South Wales might be holding out for a hero but it’s important to be realistic. Moses is only two games back from a long lay-off in a team that is struggling.

The jersey might still be his to lose but it’s still up for grabs enough that he’ll need a big performance against the Roosters next week.

Canterbury’s Matt Burton, 18th man for the series opener, had also gathered momentum in the days since Origin I.

The Blues’ lack of versatility on their bench hurt them badly and Burton showed why he’d fit the bill perfectly.

Burton is not yet a top-class five-eighth but he is a top-class footballer. There are still lapses of concentration in his game but there are also undeniable moments of great athleticism and skill as he created chances with his passing and running game and of course, there is his boot, a deadly and unique weapon he is learning to control.

His bomb before half-time, which led to one of Canterbury’s disallowed tries, was the kind of thing that gives fullbacks nervous breakdowns.

If you think commentators and journalists carry on about those howitzer kicks too much, you haven’t seen one in person.

Burton has been judicious with the screamers this year, but he’s got a better feel for them and on the rest of his kicks — he nailed a 40/20 in the second half which showed the greater touch he’s getting on his dragon of a left foot.

Be it at five-eighth, centre or on the bench, he’s the kind of player it’s always better to have and not need rather than need and not have.

The Bulldogs have the bye next week, which means Burton has done all he can and that’s turned out to be a fair bit.

The Origin circus will roll on through the next week and get even louder ahead of the team selections.

That’s always how it goes when New South Wales are staring down the barrel of a series loss — the Blue hordes are always on the lookout for a hero to rescue the state and everybody has a different idea of what a saviour looks like.

These games still matter for something beyond Origin.

Canterbury have now won three in a row. It’s been a long time since they were in the finals race at the midway point of the season and there’s been enough of the good stuff for the faithful to start dreaming of the club’s first finals berth since 2016.

The heart they showed to dig out a win after losing three players to injury, plus the commitment to their process displayed by staying the course after having all those disallowed tries, is the sign of a team on the rise.

But Origin puts those things into the background.

It changes the way we look at these matches by transforming a team game into something closer to an individual sport and that’s the price we pay for a series that can take as much as it gives.

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