If the next State of Origin wasn’t a year away, Blake Austin might have played himself into a NSW jersey with a stunning hat-trick in Canberra’s 36-22 win over Newcastle on Friday.
The superstar No.6 scored three tries inside the first 15 minutes, while Josh Papalii got a double to seal the Raiders’ first victory in a month, at a chilly GIO Stadium.
Their last win was in round 13 against the Knights, who’ve now lost six in a row.
With Laurie Daley’s halves pairing of Trent Hodkinson and Mitchell Pearce proving unsuccessful in the Blues’ Origin title defence, Austin provided a timely reminder of his skill at five-eighth.
He took just 90 seconds to get try No.1, following a brave decision to run on the last tackle of the second set of the game.
His made it a double barely six minutes later, grabbing a Paul Vaughan offload and turning Knights fullback Kurt Gidley inside out with a superb left-foot step.
He brought up the hat-trick in the 15th minute after winning the race to a clever kick in-goal.
“Every time I see him play I’m more impressed with him,” rugby league immortal Andrew Johns said during commentary for the Nine Network.
“What a player.”
Jarrod Croker scored Canberra’s fourth try and then converted in the 23rd minute to overtake Mal Meninga as the Raiders’ third-highest tryscorer of all time.
Newcastle hit back with one of their own on the half-hour mark to enter the break 24-4 down.
With the return of Tyrone Roberts and playmaker Jarrod Mullen together for the first time since Anzac Day, the Knights had hoped their first-choice halves pairing would spark their attack in Canberra.
But Mullen – back after 10 weeks on the sidelines with a foot injury – appeared a shadow of himself, hobbling at times.
Dane Gagai also struggled, having made his Origin debut barely 48 hours earlier in Queensland’s series-winning victory in Brisbane.
But his Maroons teammate Papalii showed no signs of fatigue, adding to his maiden Origin try with a double both scored in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Akuila Uate answered with a pair of tries and Kane Snowden a four-pointer of his own, but it was too little too late for the Knights.
The night, however, ended on a sour note for the Raiders, with in-form halfback Sam Williams taken off late in the second half with a suspected pectoral injury.