Is it still an ambush if you see it coming?

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    Queensland are done. Finished. They’re too old. Too slow. Too tired from winning series after series. The tide has turned and there’s nothing the Maroons can do to stop it. They’ve gone from top dogs back down to a role that they’re much more familiar with – underdogs.

    That’s what they’ll have you believe anyway. But are the Maroons really underdogs? An underdog is a long shot. A competitor thought to have little or no chance of winning. Working with inferior resources, an underdog battles against the odds from a position of disadvantage to clinch an unlikely victory.

    Leicester City were underdogs during their fairy-tale Premier League season. Jeļena Ostapenko was an underdog when she won the French Open. Rocky Balboa, now there’s an underdog!

    But this Queensland team? I’m not buying it.

    Despite making an unprecedented seven changes to the side that was comprehensively beaten in Game 1, the core of the Queensland side remains intact. The Maroons will run out onto ANZ Stadium on Wednesday night boasting the greatest spine in the history of rugby league; a spine largely responsible for Queensland winning 10 of the last 11 Origin series. These blokes are current superstars, future immortals, and know more about Origin than Charles Darwin.

    Underdogs? I think not.

    We all know why Queensland play up the underdog tag. They feed off of the doubt, the uncertainty, the scepticism. They want you to write them off and take them lightly. It all serves as motivation to prove you wrong.

    And Australians love an underdog. From Steven Bradbury to Chloe Esposito or even Daniel LaRusso getting one over Johnny Lawrence, we rally around David to beat Goliath. It’s in our nature. Queensland know this, and regularly use it to their advantage.

    But the most important benefit of casting yourself as an underdog is that it can reduce expectations and remove the pressure to perform. In a game with so much riding on the result, alleviating the pressure is a vital component of Queensland’s preparation.

    This strategy has worked well for the Maroons in the past, but I have a sneaking suspicion it could backfire spectacularly on Wednesday evening. Ironically, all this talk of Queensland being the underdog has shifted the focus off of the NSW side and increased the pressure on the Maroons to produce another Origin miracle.

    The key difference in this series compared with previous campaigns is that NSW are ready.

    From the moment that the Queensland side was named for Game 2, the New South Wales sporting public shared a singular inner monologue – “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”. The return of Slater and Thurston, the selection of unheralded and unheard-of club toilers, the perceived complacency within the NSW team – it all reeked of a Maroon ambush.

    Thurston-Origin

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    And that’s where Queensland will run into some trouble: everyone south of the border is expecting the ambush. We’re expecting Coen Hess to transform into Gorden Tallis before our very eyes. We’re expecting Tim Glasby and Jarrod Wallace to rise to the occasion. We’re expecting to see referee Smith get his own way, to see Queensland receive the 50/50 calls, to see Thurston weave his magic.

    We’re expecting last minute miracle tries.

    And while the likes of Cooper Cronk may sprinkle pressure on top of their chia breakfast bowl, not everyone will be revelling in the added scrutiny. Put yourself in Tim Glasby’s shoes, one of four debutants in the Queensland side. Even his own mother would admit that he’s been no more than a solid club player across his five-year career.

    But suddenly, based on the precedent set by the likes of Myles, Lillyman and Guerra, he’s expected to play well above his station, simply because he’s wearing the Maroon jersey. And on debut no less, in a game that Queensland needs to win to save the series. Now that’s pressure!

    So instead of piling the pressure on NSW to clinch the series in Sydney, all this talk of underdogs and ambushes has actually had the opposite effect. All the pressure and expectation now lies with the Queenslanders to produce another magic Origin moment, and send the series back to Suncorp for a fitting crescendo.

    Only this time, we’ll be waiting.

    The Slap
    Punching is not a good look for rugby league. I think we can all agree on that. Watching two finely tuned athletes trade wild haymakers can be entertaining, but the game has moved on. Sport has moved on. And with good reason.

    Apart from the obvious health and safety concerns around repeated blows to the head, fighting just isn’t a good advertisement for the game. Rugby league is engaged in an ongoing struggle with other winter sports for junior participants, and parents don’t want their kids playing a game that might result in a Luke Lewis nose.

    So I understand why the NRL got rid of the biff, and why there are no plans to bring it back. The moment Paul Gallen landed a couple of tame jabs on the IMAX screen-sized forehead of Nate Myles, rugby league changed forever. And that’s okay.

    But what’s not okay is the slap. As tends to be the case in the NRL, once a rule is amended to eradicate a certain behaviour, something else pops up in its place. In drug policy circles, this is called the balloon effect, where squashing down on illicit activity in one place causes it to pop up somewhere else.

    So when the NRL told the players they were no longer allowed to punch one another, they started slapping each other instead. And if you think punching is a bad look for rugby league, then you haven’t watched a couple of 120kg men going at each other like a pair of jilted lovers. Seriously, you’ll find more ferocious behaviour during the afternoon pick-up at Abbotsleigh.

    Not wanting to be seen as weak and ineffectual, the NRL reacted swiftly, decisively, and with all the foresight of a Meriton architect. The slap was put on the rugby league equivalent of the ‘do not deliver’ list, with those choosing the open hand brand of justice now looking at ten minutes in the sin bin.

    But where does it stop? Do we ban pushing and shoving? Grabbing jerseys? What about bad language? Do we give ten minutes in the sin bin for certain curse words? Maybe we should ban death stares and stink eyes? Offensively coloured boots? Or even aesthetically displeasing hair styles (I’m looking at you, Blake Austin).

    The current rules around striking are a perfect example of a reactive administration shooting from the hip and making it up as they go. Instead of providing clarity, the players and fans are left with more shades of grey than EL James. So add the slap to the long list of things that Todd Greenberg must address over the off-season.

    5th Tackle Option

    Here are five quick thoughts on the action from Round 15:

    1. That was horrible viewing on Friday night. An out of form South Sydney side taking on an injury-depleted Gold Coast team, with the only good players on either roster unavailable due to Origin or injury.

    With the AFL season just heating up, a Lions tour going on across the ditch, the Wallabies making rugby almost watchable, the netball grand final taking place in Queensland, and the USA playing Canada in ice hockey exhibition matches, the competition for sporting eyeballs has never been more ferocious.

    Yet instead of trying to ensure that as many eyeballs as possible are watching rugby league, the NRL is actively discouraging its fans from tuning in. I could only manage 40 minutes on Friday night before switching over to watch Non-Stop on Netflix. It proved more entertaining and less predictable.

    2. It was young talent time at AAMI Park on Saturday evening. With their Origin stars watching on, the Storm and the Cowboys removed the training wheels from some of their teenage talent, and the results were phenomenal.

    For Melbourne, the performances of Brodie Croft, Curtis Scott and Brandon Smith gave hope for life after the Big Three. And for North Queensland, Kyle Laybutt tried on Johnathan Thurston’s crown, and it seemed to fit him okay. Both sides look to be in good hands once their champions finally retire.

    3. The performance of the Melbourne Storm without their Origin players was particularly eye-catching. What shone through the most was that they still play with the same structures, still run the same plays, still defend in the same manner regardless of who is on the park. And that’s a credit to Craig Bellamy.

    His philosophy reminds me of that of the legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who lives by a simple mantra – Do Your Job. Every player is given a simple job to do, and so long as he does it to the best of his abilities, the team plays well. It’s no surprise the Storm have enjoyed similar levels of success to the Patriots under Bellamy’s instruction.

    4. Good to see Justin O’Neill bounce back after being dropped from the Maroons squad. He was one of the best on ground during the Cowboys’ golden point loss to Melbourne.

    5. I’m not sure how he does it, but Corey Norman just seems to have more time than any other player on the field. His actions are so smooth and fluid. He’s never hurried and rarely flustered.

    Mitchell Moses, on the other hand, does everything at a frenzied pace. When Moses is on, his execution at breakneck speed makes him near impossible to defend, but when he’s off, which he is more often than not, it makes him prone to making simple errors. It will be interesting to watch how this combination of polar opposites develops over time.

    Tom Rock
    Tom Rock

    A fair-weather Newcastle Knights fan, Tom doesn’t leave anything on the field. He always gives 110% and never forgets to give full credit to the boys. But in a game of two halves, it’s important not to look too far ahead, so Tom’s just taking it one week at a time. Follow him on Twitter @_TomRock_.

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