State of Origin I: key match-ups
Does Brett Stewart deserve to break into the NSW Blues team? (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
The Queensland Maroons will once again start favourites for this year’s State of Origin series.
Many expect the Maroons to dominate a New South Wales Blues side that is down on form, missing key players to injury, and, quite simply, not as talented as their counterparts from up north.
With game one at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne tomorrow night, we analyse the key match-ups that will decide who will win the opening match of the series.
The Queensland pack will rely on size and experience to dominate the battle up front; two qualities that are pretty handy in a forward pack.
Meanwhile, the Blues forwards will attack the Maroons with less bulk, but more athleticism and speed. This strategy surprised Queensland in game two last year, when the Maroons were caught off-guard by a NSW ambush and Paul Gallen’s monster game at prop.
However, Queensland were better prepared in game three, and completely rolled over and through the Blues defensive line with strong penetrating runs from their menacing forwards.
I can see this happening again, and when it comes to forward packs, give me size any day.
As for the hookers, while Robbie Farah brings a lot of skill and attacking potential to the Blues side, he’s not the type of number 9 that has traditionally excelled at Origin level.
There is also the not-too-small point that the opposing hooker is arguably the best of all time.
In an indication of just how strong Queensland are, they’ll cover the loss of one of the greatest players of all-time, Darren Lockyer, by promoting the best halfback in the NRL into the starting 13.
Johnathan Thurston shifts to five-eight at Origin level as well, to accommodate Cooper Cronk starting at halfback. Which once again provides the Maroons with a formidable halves pairing that will consistently make the right decision when attacking the Blues try-line.
Whether its deft passing or short-kicking, they will very rarely take the wrong option, ensuring the Blues are constantly under threat.
Meanwhile, the Blues will persist with Mitchell Pearce at halfback through a combination of his solid play for the Roosters, and by default. Really, there was little competition for his number 7 jersey.
Pearce usually defends brilliantly, but it’s vital that he gets his kicking game right, both long and short, to alleviate pressure from his team, along with mounting it on the Maroons. This is something he failed to do consistently last year.
Not to put too much pressure on him, but Todd Carney is the key to this match-up.
He has skill, class and a touch of x-factor about him. All will be required if NSW are any chance of victory. He’s a difficult player to plan for, because he’s unpredictable, but the Maroons will need to watch him closely.
The Sharks win over the seemingly invincible Storm a few weeks ago demonstrates what a Carney-led side is capable of.
Both Blues halves will need to be faultless in their tactical kicking in order neutralise the counter-attacking capabilities of perennial Blues killer, Billy Slater.
Billy Slater is currently the best rugby league player in the world. And he just keeps on improving. His ball skills are now the level of most top level halves. He’s the best support player in the game. He diffuses bombs with ease. He prevents tries all by himself. He’s the best counter-attacker in the game.
He’s great. Period.
His opposing fullback is no slouch, and makes his return to Origin football for the first time since 2009.
Brett Stewart is a prolific and natural try scorer. He’s also excellent with the ball in-hand, and a fine defensive custodian at the back for Manly.
He’s a very good player, yet it speaks volumes of Slater’s greatness that the Maroons still have the edge in this department by a very long way.
Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges present a powerful combination of size and skill. Inglis, in particular, has been in devastating form for Souths, albeit at fullback.
On the wings, Brent Tate makes an inspirational return to Origin football, and will be joined on the flank by the out-of-sorts Darius Boyd.
The Blues will combat the Maroons with Michael Jennings and Josh Morris in the centres.
Morris will be in for a torrid time defending out of his natural position against the intimidating Inglis.
Jennings won’t have it any easier trying to defend the size and length of Hodges. And both can expect to say hello to David Taylor fairly often, once he comes onto the field.
Defending the size and strength of Queensland may affect the Blues centres’ attacking potency, which is a concern because where NSW may potentially have an edge is the wingers.
Much has been made of Hayne’s form at Parramatta, but he’s a big game player that has always performed at Origin level. And Uate was sensational in last year’s series. Both will be energised by getting away from their respective club team’s woes.
However, they need quality ball in order to have any impact on the game in attack. Whether that be achieved is doubtful.
Even if the Blues are able to contain the early onslaught of Queensland’s dominant pack, a quick look over at the Maroons reserves bench will cause heart palpitations.
Ben Hannant, David Shillington, David Taylor and Matt Gillett would have to be the biggest interchange bench in Origin history. The four behemoths will be frothing at the mouth, desperate to get into the game and rip the Blues to shreds.
In particular, a fresh David Taylor running off Thurston on the fringes of the attack will give the Blues nightmares.
Whilst I would have liked to have seen Tony Williams play a club game before making his return to football, there is no doubt that he can have a massive impact on a game with his size and strength. Match fitness may be a concern, but if he can give the Blues a lift with something special off the bench, it could turn the game.
I said it last year and I’ll say it again: Ben Creagh is better-suited to a starting role, with his athleticism and running game more valuable in an 80 minute role than it is with an impact-off-the-bench role. He’ll also be asked to play prop, which begs the question: why not just pick a prop?
Trent Merrin has impressive statistics this year with the Dragons, and the fact he comes off the bench at club level means he won’t be asked to do something unnatural at the higher level. However, he looked like a dear in the headlights in last year’s series, and will need to prove he’s up to the increased intensity and pace of Origin football.
Considering Farah, the halves, and most of the backrowers can play 80 minutes, I have no idea what Jamie Buhrer’s role will be. Picking a utility for utility’s sake is selection stupidity, and this spot could have been used more wisely with a number of other players.
Some additional size wouldn’t have gone astray, that’s for sure.
For all the bluster, mind games, strategies and talk, coaches are judged by one thing and one thing only: wins.
People attempt to demean Mal Meninga’s record by highlighting his strong coaching staff and world class playing talent. But that’s disrespectful and stupid. How many coaches, across every sport, have had great playing squads, but still not brought home the bacon?
In this department, Meninga simply needs to raise 6 fingers and smile.
Queensland have the edge in talent, club form and recent Origin form.
The Queenslanders are essentially playing a home game too, due to the number of Storm players in the Maroons side, along with Victorian dislike for all things from New South Wales.
Everything points towards a Queensland victory. It’s just fact.
I’ve started to warm to this NSW side, particularly the backline, which will ask some questions of the Queensland defensive line.
With Carney, Farah, Hayne, the Stewart’s and Jennings, the Blues have plenty of options and potency, along with a touch of x-factor. If they click, they’ve got some points in them.
However, the size of the Queensland pack and reserves bench means that the Maroons will eventually grind down the Blues after a tight first half.
Size matters, and Queensland have plenty of it.
New South Wales: 16.
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.