It might have been a small crowd and many in NRL circles are seemingly ‘over’ the City vs Country concept – but regardless, the two sides produced an exciting match – one where several players put their hand up for NSW Origin Selection.
Leading the cause were Roosters pair Braith Anasta and Mitchell Pearce, combining well and showing they are ready to be the main men in the NSW halves.
Despite playing behind a well beaten pack, Anasta and Pearce engineered a stunning second half fightback to give City the lead before Todd Carney stepped his way past Brett Hodgson to set up the first draw in the annual representative fixture since 1961.
The result was booed by a smallish crowd expecting to see golden point.
All four halves had a shot at field goal glory in the dying stages though all were unsuccessful, Carney deserving better after his 48-metre effort shaved the left hand upright.
City retained the shield after last year’s win.
While neither Pearce nor Anasta put in five-star performances, their effort as a combination showed the kind of spark and imagination that would have pleased incoming Blues coach Craig Bellamy.
Country No.7 Brett Finch had an impressive first half, his kicking game crucial in getting his side to a 16-6 lead at the break.
But City fought back after the break to level the game at 16-16 when Pearce kicked wide for Jarryd Hayne to touch down.
Hayne confirmed his Blues berth with a powerful game, his second half four-pointer backed up by some strong defence as he put some ordinary club form behind him to totally outshine another NSW hopeful in Anthony Quinn.
Another to impress was Anthony Laffranchi while Wests Tigers backrower Chris Heighington pushed his name into Origin reckoning with an energetic performance off the Country bench.
City started well when an Anasta short ball put John Sutton over, but Finch’s boot put Country on the board with a grubber for Amos Roberts after 18 minutes.
Kangaroos’ 18th man Laffranchi showed he was ready for a Test call-up as he showed good strength and footwork to give Country their first lead and they were in total control when a Finch bomb fortuitously bounced off the upright and eventually found Ben Harris, who scored under the posts.
A simple backline movement put City back in the game via Brett Delaney before two tries in the space of five minutes, the first after a Carney kick was charged down to send Ben Pomeroy on a 70-metre run to the line, gave the gold jersey’s the lead with just 15 minutes on the clock.
Anasta was happy to push the Origin claims of his young halves partner, but also said he was ready to take the Blues No.6 jumper if NSW selectors opted for Greg Bird at lock.
“I think I’m playing good enough to be there but we’ll have to see what happens,” Anasta said.
“I feel like I’m playing good footy and I think I can play better.
“Pearcy’s been playing great and tonight he stepped up at the right time.
“We were behind, we looked like we were struggling, he put on some good plays. I was a bit wary to see how he’d go, he was a bit nervous before the game and he stood up and he played great.”
Asked if he thought Pearce was ready for Origin football, Anasta said: “I think if you have a look at the game tonight that pretty much answers it.”
Country coach and NSW selector Laurie Daley admitted the task of picking the squad for Origin I hadn’t been made any easier by the strong performances across the board.
“All these games when players stand out, it always makes it harder,” Daley said.
“That’s been the best thing about this game. In our minds there’s not a settled combination, there’s still two, three weeks to go and injuries, suspensions can come into play.
“Plenty of people did their chances no harm.”