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Daly Cherry-Evans finally gets his redemption story

When Cooper Cronk broke his arm during the first game of the 2014 State of Origin series, Queensland coach Mal Meninga called upon Daly Cherry-Evans to get the job done for the rest of the contest.

The Maroons lost 12-8 at home, and would have to win at ANZ Stadium in Game II without Cronk. Cherry-Evans himself was set to miss the match to injury, but recovered in time. However, the Blues and their ability to contain the Maroons saw them win 6-4 and clinch their first Origin series win in nine years.

With the Maroons dynasty falling short of a possible 10 series wins in a row, Cherry-Evans copped a lot of criticism for the series loss; and the noise grew louder when Cronk miraculously recovered in time for Game III as Queensland won 32-8 in the dead rubber.

However, the story of Cherry-Evans and the fractured relationship with his home state would not end there.

Early in 2015, Cherry-Evans had been announced as a Gold Coast player from 2016 on a four year contract. It was meant to be a massive coup by the Titans. A Mackay junior who had won a premiership at Manly was willing to leave the Northern Beaches to head back to his home state and help a struggling club rebuild.

Or so we all thought.

Three months after Cherry-Evans had agreed to join the Titans, he backflipped on the deal – reportedly signing an eight-year contract worth $10 million to stay at Manly. To say this upset the Titans faithful heavily is an understatement.

As fans across Queensland fumed at the Manly halfback for not honouring his contract, they would be forced to cheer for him as Cronk was ruled out of Origin II in the 2015 series to a knee injury. The Maroons lost 26-18 in a thrilling contest in front of 90,000 fans at the MCG as the Blues forced a decider at Suncorp Stadium for the series.

Once again, Cherry-Evans bore the brunt of criticism for the loss from media outlets and pundits across the rugby league world. Cronk came back for the decider, and helped the Maroons thrashed the Blues 52-6.

By the time 2016 came around, Cherry-Evans was despised across Queensland: he was booed during NRL games Manly played in the sunshine state.

A combination of poor form and Michael Morgan playing a key part in the Cowboys’ 2015 premiership-winning campaign would see DCE lose his interchange spot in the Maroons side. Even when Johnathan Thurston missed games I and III during the 2017 Origin series, Cherry-Evans wasn’t considered to partner Cooper Cronk in the halves, as Anthony Milford and Cameron Munster had pushed ahead in the pecking order.

Come the beginning of the 2018 Origin series, Queensland had a massive clean-out with experienced campaigners in Thurston, Cronk and skipper Cameron Smith retiring from representative duties in rugby league.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 08: Maroons captain Daly Cherry-Evans and Maroons head coach Billy Slater celebrate victory after game one of the 2022 State of Origin series between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons at Accor Stadium on June 08, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Despite this, Kevin Walters would opt for Ben Hunt to play at halfback as Cherry-Evans was not even chosen to come off the bench. However, come the end of Game II when the Blues wrapped up the series, an SOS would ultimately be sent out.

He would be named at halfback for Game III, while Hunt was demoted to the bench. In a tight game, the Maroons fought back from 8-12 down at half time to win 18-12, as DCE sealed the game with the match-winning try.

When Billy Slater retired in 2018, Walters would make a decision that would polarise Maroons faithful – he made Cherry-Evans the skipper for the 2019 series. An outcast just four years earlier, he was now at the helm.

Despite the Maroons winning a tight match in Game I, the Blues would thrash the Maroons in Game II before winning in the final minute of the decider to seal the series. Once again, Cherry-Evans was at the forefront of the criticism.

In the delayed 2020 Origin series, pushed back due to COVID-19 until after the NRL season, the worm began to turn. Cherry-Evans stood out from the front with a man of the match performance to ensure the Maroons took the series opener.

Although the Blues hit back in Game II, the Maroons would overcome the mocking title of being the worst Maroons team of all time to win the 2020 series decider at Suncorp Stadium.

But while DCE became the first Maroons skipper to lift the Origin Shield since Smith, it was Wayne Bennett’s coaching and Munster’s moments of individual brilliance that got most of the plaudits from fans and pundits. However, those who applauded Bennett’s and Munster’s efforts in 2020 would be the first to point fingers at Cherry-Evans when the Blues won 76-6 across two games to reclaim the shield in 2021.

The rise of Tom Dearden in 2022 kept Cherry-Evans on his toes, as the youngster was added to the Maroons squad throughout the series as cover.

With the series squared 1-1 leading to the decider at Suncorp Stadium, Maroons fans surely expected the worst when Munster and Murray Taulagi were ruled out due to positive COVID-19 tests.

Cameron Munster to Queensland is what Shakib Al Hasan has been to Bangladesh cricket; without him, the Maroons would surely fall apart. While Queensland were seldom favourites post-2017, Munster’s ability to break games open was always the biggest fear in the Blues’ camp.

As skipper, Cherry-Evans would face his toughest test in a Queensland jersey. A jersey in which he has copped more criticism than most to don the maroon.

Without Munster and Taulagi, DCE would have to rally his troops and lead from the front to ensure the Suncorp crowd wouldn’t be silenced by James Tedesco and his Blues.

Rather than become a ball-running half and break games open with moments of sheer individual brilliance, DCE stuck to his strengths – his kicking game. And a phenomenal one it is at that.

He kicked. And kicked. And kicked. Until his kicking forced a mistake off Blues winger Daniel Tupou.

With the Maroons down by six then, Cherry-Evans’ kicking game forced a momentum shift in the shadows of half time. He was set to score within 65 seconds of the second half had Dane Gagai not had a brain fade and kicked off that almighty melee.

However, Cherry-Evans again rallied his troops and kicked his way (sometimes as early as on the second tackle) into giving the Maroons great field position in the second half. All the while, his opposition half Nathan Cleary struggled for any momentum.

Alongside Ben Hunt, DCE kicked the Maroons to a 22-12 victory – winning the series decider with two of their starters down with COVID and two more players down with failed HIAs within the opening 10 minutes.

Queensland needed Cherry-Evans to deliver without their match-winner, and the skipper led from the front, even if that meant others such as Hunt and Kalyn Ponga were the ones praised the most in the post-match.

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Never has a player in the history of Origin had such a fractured relationship with his home state. The closest to that may be Mitchell Pearce, who also had his redemption day in 2019.

Wednesday, 12 July, 2022 was the date Daly Cherry-Evans was finally loved by Queensland fans.

Maybe now the past poor performances and the Gold Coast saga can be put to rest for good.

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