The stage is set for an epic encounter when the NSW Blues and Queensland Maroons battle each other once again in State of Origin III at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane tomorrow night.
Amongst the numerous subplots of the deciding match in the 2011 series, two stand out. The first revolves around NSW’s quest to break a five year losing streak. The second is Queensland’s desire to send Maroons legend Darren Lockyer out a winner.
Only one thing is certain: one state’s heart is going to be broken.
Fans both north and south of the border were guilty of unjustified arrogance after Game II. NSW supporters were a little too boisterous considering the Blues had essentially only won one game.
Meanwhile, many Queenslanders failed to give NSW the respect they deserved. The general Maroon sentiment, led by Gorden Tallis, was, “We’ll win by 20 in Brisbane”.
So, who’s going to win Game III? For the last time, we analyse the key match-ups.
Mal Meninga has presided over five series victories in a row. However, as harsh as it may be, in Origin football, you’re only as good as your last game, and Ricky Stuart’s tactics paid off in a big way in Sydney.
Stuart’s decision to select a nimble and athletic forward pack proved to be a strategic masterstroke, and he has selected a similar side for the Origin decider.
Meanwhile, Meninga’s tactical nous will be under the microscope, because he’ll need to have some answers for the NSW forward pack’s quickness. This game may very well answer the question of whether Mal is a great coach, or great manager.
Edge: Queensland. Whatever his methods and tactics, you simply cannot ignore Meninga’s record at this level.
The game will again be determined by which forward pack can assert its dominance.
Considering the personnel that each state has selected, the battle up front will once again come down to a question of size versus athleticism.
In Game I, size prevailed, as Queensland’s monster pack dominated NSW and paved the way for a Maroons victory. In Game II, NSW’s collection of backrowers ran riot over the Maroon’s forward pack, making them look old and slow, thus chalking up a win for athleticism.
It’s absolutely no coincidence that the forward battle is tied at one-all, as is the series.
Edge: NSW. It’s hard to forget the Game II memories of Queensland’s forwards gasping for air as the NSW forwards ran them ragged. The tactic worked in Game II, and I see no reason why it won’t work again in Game III.
In both games, the Blues halves have taken almost 30 minutes of football to settle into their roles, and get their kicking right. Considering the talent in the Queensland backline, NSW have been extremely lucky not to be trailing by double digits at halftime in both encounters.
Whether its nerves, excitement or just poor execution, Soward and Pearce need to be in the game from the kick off, as I doubt Queensland will afford them the luxury of making early mistakes for three games in a row.
Meanwhile, the much vaunted Queensland halves pairing has yet to dominate the series, particularly Johnathan Thurston, who was way down on his usual Maroons form in Sydney.
Both Thurston and Lockyer were put under immense pressure in Game II, with Lockyer copping a few heavy hits whilst kicking the football. The Blues forwards will once again be after the Queensland halves, because they know Thurston and Lockyer hold the key to unleashing the potent Maroons backline.
Edge: Queensland. Lockyer is one the best under-pressure footballers in rugby league history, and the stakes don’t get much higher than an Origin decider, in your farewell match. Only a brave man would bet against Lockyer.
It speaks volumes of Billy Slater’s ability that he can score the match-winning in try in Game I, then be one of Queensland’s better players in a losing effort in Game II, yet the Blues are still concerned about the potential for improvement in his game.
Anthony Minichiello was a surprise choice as NSW fullback, but totally vindicated the selectors and coach Ricky Stuart’s faith by being one of the best players on the park in Sydney.
His defensive positioning was excellent, and he played the support role in attack to perfection, leading to his match-winning try.
Edge: Queensland. Whilst fullbacks rarely come head-to-head during a game, NSW can be confidently reassured that whilst Queensland win the fullback battle on paper, it’s closer than most would expect.
The return from injury of Justin Hodges means the Maroons finally have their first-choice backline all fit and raring to go. And whilst Stuart is yet to confirm his side, I expect him to name Jennings and Hayne on the left hand side.
Boyd, Inglis, Hodges and Yow Yeh versus Uate, Gasnier, Jennings and Hayne. If you’re not excited about this battle, you’re a corpse.
Size, speed and skill are in abundance in both backlines, and one can only hope that both pairs of halves can get their backs some quality ball, and we can witness some of the best attacking talent in rugby league strut their stuff.
Edge: Even. I’m genuinely excited about this match-up, and I simply cannot separate them. Both backlines ooze class and explosiveness.
Watmough, Gidley and Lewis were all brilliant for the Blues in Game II. Each provided exactly what you’re after from a bench player: impact. Their influence ensured that NSW attacked the Maroons for the full 80 minutes, and Stuart will simply ask for more of the same in Game III.
Meanwhile, Queensland received very little from their bench in Sydney, and I think coach Meninga needs to be a little more strategic in the use of his reserves.
Cooper Cronk was brilliant in Game I, because Queensland used all four of their kicking options (Thurston, Lockyer, Smith and Cronk) to keep NSW guessing. Considering the pressure that NSW’s pack put on Thurston and Lockyer in Game II, it would be wise to utilise Cronk as a kicker again in Game III, as it’s virtually impossible to defensively attack four kickers.
With NSW once again selecting a mobile forward pack, Meninga’s use of his bench forwards will prove crucial. He needs to ensure he substitutes players off before they get tired, because there is nowhere to hide and rest in Origin football at the best of times, let alone when the opposition has selected numerous athletic, speedy forwards.
Edge: NSW. Watmough, Gidley and Lewis are the perfect bench players for Origin. Skilful, versatile and impactful. Perfect.
The overall key to the game:
Tactics. Queensland appear to have approached Game III thinking that they merely played poorly in Game II, and simply need to play better. Whilst that may be true, it’s also possibly not giving the Blues enough credit, particularly NSW’s strategy of picking a fast, mobile forward pack.
By selecting Jacob Lillyman to replace David Taylor, the Maroons obviously still feel that they can win with size. However, I think Queensland made a massive error in leaving Dallas Johnson out of their side, as he would have been the perfect anecdote to NSW’s mobile forward pack, for three reasons:
1. Whilst he’s not the quickest player in the league, Johnson is an absolute tackling machine, and in the past, he’s made the Maroons virtually impregnable in defence.
2. Johnson’s never seems to tire, which was huge problem for the Maroons pack in Game II.
3. And lastly, he brings plenty of intangibles to the Queensland side. Whether it’s playing 80 minutes despite serious injury, preventing a certain try, or making five tackles in one set, Johnson’s presence always seems to lift the Maroons.
Defence, stamina and inspiration. Three qualities Dallas Johnson brings to the table and three qualities the Maroons lacked in Sydney.
Queensland may very well rue not selecting Dallas Johnson.
NSW have momentum and confidence. Queensland are playing at home, and are supremely motivated to send Lockyer out a winner.
Golden point anyone? NSW: 21, Qld: 20.