Well – Loz vs Gus, eh? Didn’t that escalate quickly.
As part of The Roar‘s comprehensive State of Origin coverage which will also include previews from our experts and players ratings the morning after the game, we’re starting the week with the first in a two-part series looking at three key questions for each team heading into Wednesday night’s season opener.
While regular readers of my Thursday Night Forecast series will know that I typically prefer to take a strictly analytical approach to previewing games there are some distinct challenges to taking that approach for Origin.
For one these aren’t regular teams with recent form to consider. Of course, we can look back at the previous season but it is not the same as watching a team evolve on a week to week basis. They are also not regular teams in the sense that they only get a handful of genuine training sessions together so there is not the same breadth of tactics to assess.
Also as we know, and as the host broadcaster will no doubt remind us a bazillion times, Origin can be a very different environment to a typical NRL game. While the game features some of the fastest players in the game, in both a physical and mental sense, it can at times be a plodding affair as referees allow far more leeway in the tackle. This tends to suit certain players more than others.
With all that being said there are still some purely analytical questions to consider for both teams along with some big picture stuff as well. We will start with Queensland as the series holder after they narrowly squeaked home in Game 3 last year.
Before we begin there is one question that as of this writing still looms over the build-up to Origin One and that is whether or not Cooper Cronk will play.
However given the lack of accurate information, and the usual Origin he said, she said silliness that has been going on this column we will take the same approach as the NSW appear to be taking and just assume that Cronk will in fact play. (That policy will extend to discounting the inclusion of Jacob Lillyman in the extended squad. Which as you will see is relevant to our first question) .
But that aside here are the other three big questions for the Maroons.
Question 1 – Is the prop rotation strong enough?
The selection of the forward packs, and particularly the respective middle units for this game has been fascinating. Today we will look at the very reasonable question of whether or not the Queensland unit is too small and out of form yet tomorrow we will look at an equally vexing question as to whether the NSW unit is too big and has too many players in great form to use them all properly.
But before decrying the Queensland pack as selected let’s begin by agreeing that with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves returning from injury, and with apologies to Jesse Bromwich, that Matt Scott is the number one front row forward in the competition.
While he makes a relatively unexceptional 127m per game (fewer per game than four of the five players who will play prop for NSW in this game for instance) and a modest number of tackles per game he routinely carries defenders up field with tremendous leg drive, yet still finds quick play the balls. He is first forward picked for his State and his country.
However, beyond Scott the Queensland middle unit arguably leaves a bit to be desired. Nate Myles has been down on form for the Sea Eagles and many have questioned whether he should have been selected for this contest at all, let alone as a starting prop.
In particular his two most recent appearances for Manly yielded only 44m and 40m respectively. Perhaps he will jump into the Queensland phone booth and put on his maroon super hero suit, but he will need substantial improvement.
Meanwhile, on the bench for Queensland in the middle unit we find the two Joshes, Papalii and McGuire (Aidan Guerra will presumably play on the edge). Papalii has been in outstanding form this season but has played exclusively on the left edge where he has far more scope to use his shuffling footwork and strong offload.
Papalii is a fine player who probably won’t let Queensland down but he is somewhat wasted in the middle unit.
Finally there is Josh McGuire, who again is an outstanding player who is in terrific form. However he is also a tad undersized (among the front rowers only Gallen will be lighter than him) and has prospered in the speed-based game plan of the Broncos. Can he be as effective when the referees start swallowing their whistle and allowing seemingly endless slowing of the ruck?
The old saying goes that forwards decide who wins a game and backs just determine by how much. The overall strength of Queensland’s spine (including Corey Parker in 13) probably offsets this somewhat but it is certainly an area to watch closely, especially with NSW selecting a truly jumbo sized bench.
Question 2 – How will the re-worked backline perform?
The second key question to consider is whether the significantly new look Queensland backline will be a simple plug and play for the Maroons. While Queensland have rotated through new players throughout their ten-year ascendancy it is reasonable to wonder if this year’s changes might be a bridge too far.
With Billy Slater and Will Chambers both injured and Justin Hodges’ retirement the Maroons are looking decidedly fresh-faced in the backline. In their places will be two debutants and a second gamer. Meanwhile Darius Boyd will play his 24th State of Origin game, but his first at fullback.
Only Greg Inglis could truly be described as having Origin experience at his selected position (though of course Darius Boyd plays fullback every week in the NRL so he’ll probably be fine).
The new, and almost new faces are all fine players. Hulking Broncos winger Corey Oates will take Boyd’s place on the left wing and if he enjoys the time and space he gets playing outside Jack Reed he’s going to love playing outside Greg Inglis, who even down on form is still an Origin weapon.
Meanwhile, on the right flank Dane Gagai will continue on the wing after he was an injury call up for Game 3 in 2015 (and what better way to begin an Origin career than in that epic rout) while Justin O’Neill will debut at right centre.
O’Neill is a rare case of a player leaving the Melbourne Storm and getting better. Over five seasons at the Storm O’Neill scored plenty of tries but was generally a defensive liability missing 60 tackles in 2012 and 38 in 2013, the two seasons in which he was a regular starter. However roll the tape forward to 2015 and we find that O’Neill had cut the missed tackle rate significantly, missing only 17 tackles all season.
As well credentialled as each player is, however, they are still decidedly lacking in Origin experience and Origin remains a unique arena that has claimed many victims over the years. Players have entered Origin full of confidence and in great form only to be overwhelmed by the occasion. Without a single familiar combination across the backline, Queensland’s veterans will need to remain vigilant to ensure their younger teammates stay focused.
Much like the Australian cricket team of the early 2000s when it seemed like they could plug in pretty much any competent cricketer and still get results (I see you Funky Miller), Queensland boast a core group of players around whom they have been able to incorporate the occasional new player.
This is the first time in many years that the team has been required to make such wholesale changes to one part of the team and it will be fascinating to see how they handle it.
Question 3 – Is Kevin Walters ready for the step up to the big chair?
So this is where we leave analytics far behind and sail off into purely speculative waters. Our final question concerns the new Queensland coach Kevin Walters. Quite simply we can ask is he ready for this job?
While Walters does have head coaching experience in the Super League and has been part of the Origin set up for many years nothing can quite prepare you for the intensity of coaching State of Origin. Is he ready for the scrutiny that comes with every decision during Origin time and is he prepared for the speed of the game, which gives coaches little time to plan their rotations or make adjustments?
Walters won’t be taking on the role alone. A little over ten years ago Mal Meninga took charge of his first State of Origin game on the strength of a 52% winning rate over four years as Canberra Raiders coach and with a team staring down the barrel of what would have been the first ever fourth consecutive series loss.
However lining up in that team was the beginnings of the dynasty Queensland became. Johnathan Thurston was playing only his fourth game and Cam Smith his eighth, though both still deferred to the legend Darren Lockyer. Over ten years Meninga would rely on those two players, along with other wonderful playmakers like Darren Lockyer in the tail end of his career, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater to pull his team out of the fire time and again.
Ten years later Kevin Walters will start his Origin coaching career and he too will get to lean on those two wonderful players, considered by many to be the best ever in their respective positions. He will be hoping that he survives long enough to get the opportunity to shape the next generation of future Origin greats