Stats, history and common sense are all against me on this one… wait, that’s what I said last time. Well, if I was up against it backing New South Wales in Game 1, saying they’re going to tie the series up at The Cauldron tonight is crazy talk.
So bring on the straight jacket, because the Cockroaches are going to win.
Last time out I had a big ol’ question mark over the coaching abilities of new Queensland clipboard holder, Kevin Walters.
While I wouldn’t say he proved anything – with the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk in the side, there will always be questions over how much influence any coach really has on the Maroons – what Game 1 showed was that Blues coach Laurie Daley is coming into his own.
» Laurie Daley doesn’t appoint the referees, but it wasn’t always that way
» State of Origin Game 2: Why Queensland will win
» State of Origin Game 2: Expert tips and predictions
» State of Origin key questions: NSW edition
» State of Origin key questions: Queensland edition
His gameplan was not perfect – it was easy to blame Dylan Walker for that brain explosion, but what was the logic of selecting him if he was only going to be sent on in the final minutes? – but Daley’s performance after the final whistle was up there with the greats.
Words like ‘cool’ and ‘laid back’ are most often used to describe Daley. But his post-match spray at referees Gerard Sutton and Ben Cummins was Ricky Stuart stuff.
“Put it this way, I’ll be asking those two referees to not be officiating in Game 2,” Daley told the press. “There’s your story. Based on history and based on that game.”
That the same referees will be in charge of tonight’s match – seriously, the only change is to the touchies, even the video refs and standby refs are the same – is beside the point. A four-four penalty count and Josh Morris’ try being awarded on the field tells you that the whistleblowers probably did a fair job by the Blues. And Laurie likely knew it.
But he’s also been around the game long enough to know that a good coach praises his players when they win, and deflects any possible criticism elsewhere when they lose.
From Morris’ dropped ball, poor defence leading to Dane Gagai’s try, or Adam Reynolds missing the conversion that would have given the Blues a 6-2 lead, there was plenty to pick at in terms of NSW’s performance.
But Daley changed the story – and not to ‘the refs are crap’, but to ‘Laurie is cranky’.
The chilled-as-ice character suddenly showing a bit of fire. It would have been the biggest story of the following day were it not for the ridiculous, puritanical reaction to Sam Thaiday’s virginity crack.
Laurie’s bit of Wayne Bennett 101 proved he is really growing into his role as a State of Origin coach, which was enforced when he picked a side for Game 2 with only injury-enforced changes.
As I mentioned above, there were some errors in NSW’s Game 1 performance – hey, you don’t lose the game if you’re perfect – but a 6-4 scoreline tells you that the team selected were that close.
And you don’t make wholesale changes when you’re that close. You tweak.
Clearly Daley’s initial strategy was to simply tweak his gameplan, which makes sense when you go from stormy Sydney to bone-dry Brisbane, but injuries saw more changes come about. And they may end up being a blessing in disguise.
After that brain-snap play-the-ball, the pitchforks were out for Walker. But he showed in his very next game what he’s capable of, scoring a try and setting up another in a stunning first half for Manly against the Panthers.
Morris has been a faithful servant for NSW for years, and his defensive work on Greg Inglis is the benchmark for containing one of the game’s most dangerous player. But the Blues need to start scoring tries, and Walker brings x-factor in attack.
There’s a lot of talk about how dangerous Queensland will be on a fast, dry Suncorp track (pretty sure you have to use those exact four words to describe the Brisbane pitch), but the Blues have got Walker, Michael Jennings, Matt Moylan, Blake Ferguson and Josh Mansour licking their lips at the chance to get clean ball out wide tonight.
Then – and we’ll give improving coach Daley the benefit of the doubt here – if Jack Bird is properly utilised, there are plenty of points in the Blues.
As per usual, it comes down to the performances of the team’s halves. James Maloney showed in Game 1 that he was ready to take ownership of the Blues No.6 jersey long-term, while Adam Reynolds needs to prove the halfback spot belongs to him.
Still, it’s worth remembering that Andrew Johns said in 2002 he had yet to “dominate” the interstate series – even the greats take time to adjust to the pace and ferocity of Origin. So I’m willing to say Reynolds’ subdued performance was a case of first-game nerves, and look forward to seeing him make his mark tonight.
Finally, the forward battle is where NSW have a small but decided advantage. For talk of Queensland’s pack being ‘mobile’, their big men were seen struggling to get back to the defensive line in Game 1.
Granted, they were down a man after David Klemmer put Michael Morgan out of commission, but if they couldn’t quite keep up in a Sydney slog-fest, are they going to be up for what’s anticipated to be a faster game tonight?
More importantly, there’s a depth of mongrel in the Blues pack – particularly on their bench – and their hardest men have a point to prove to the paroquial Queensland crowd after last year’s final match.