The opening game of the 2017 State of Origin series kicks off in Brisbane tonight.
Though there remains a plethora of familiar names lining up for both Queensland and New South Wales, there is a slight feeling that we’re witnessing the dawn of a new generation of Origin football.
Injuries and age make the Maroons team feel a little different to what we have become accustomed to, while a retirement and the selection of new blood ensure that the Blues will take the field without their long-standing captain and vice-captain, respectively.
State of Origin Game 1 coverage
» Blues annihilate Maroons to steal series opener
» State of Origin scores, highlights, result
» WATCH: James Maloney opens the scoring with an early try
» WATCH: Commentators forget where the game’s being played
» WATCH: Jarryd Hayne and Cooper Cronk trade moments of brilliance
» WATCH: Mitchell Pearce knocked out in sickening collision
There is always a lot of anticipation and build-up to an Origin series, but this year’s comes more with a slight touch of intrigue, as fans ponder what type of game they can expect when names such as Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Paul Gallen and Robbie Farah are all absent.
Who holds the advantage, and where?
Looking at the teams that will take to the field on Wednesday night, it strikes me that NSW will need to maximise the advantages they have over Queensland.
The Maroons hold a distinct advantage over the Blues in the key positions of hooker and halfback. Few teams in history would be able to hold a candle to the duo of Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, and the 2017 Blues are no exception.
Nathan Peats will be making his Origin debut, and Mitchell Pearce will . . . well, let’s just say that his Origin record makes for uglier reading than a Phil Gould centrefold. If this positional battle were a head-to-head fight, the Blues would be wise to apply for a mercy ruling before proceedings even got underway.
If you include the other position in the spine – the fullback – the Maroons once again come out of on top, but Darius Boyd over James Tedesco isn’t a the most gaping hole you’ll come across, in terms of the gulf in talent.
However, a look across the rest of the park suggests the Blues hold the advantage almost everywhere else.
Anthony Milford is on debut and has been wildly inconsistent this season, while Jimmy Maloney is the reigning Dally M five-eighth of the year, a reigning premier, in very good form, and has had some good Origin games under his belt during his career.
I have major question marks over the Maroon centres and wingers, and would give Blake Ferguson, Josh Dugan, Jarryd Hayne and Brett Morris an almighty tick over the quartet of Corey Oates, Will Chambers, Justin O’Neill and Dane Gagai.
In the backrow, both teams come with plenty of talent, and the match-up of Josh Jackson, Boyd Cordner and Tyson Frizell, against Matt Gillett, Josh Papalii and Josh McGuire will be worth the price of admission alone. However, I give NSW a slight edge.
Meanwhile, upfront, the prop battle between Aaron Woods/Andrew Fifita and Dylan Napa/Nate Myles should be a ripper too, but Fifita’s form gives NSW another win on paper.
On the benches, David Klemmer, Wade Graham, Jake Trbojevic and Jack Bird give NSW an eclectic and electric reserves squad. While the Maroons’ Sam Thaiday, Aidan Guerra, Jacon Lillyman and Michael Morgan is damn pretty impressive too. It’s a bit of a coin toss this one, but the Maroons experience probably give them a small advantage.
So all in all, there are some areas of strength for NSW, and they need to ensure they play to them.
As ever, the poise, maturity, experience, class, patience and ability of Smith and Cronk hold the key here. For all the talk of NSW having some advantages to exploit, the Australian hooker and halfback may not let them. That’s just how good they are.
NSW must be mentally strong if they want to win
The other danger for NSW is if they fail to control their emotions.
As mentioned above, for the first time I can recall in recent history, I think NSW might actually head into an Origin game with the better team on paper. The loss of Thurston and Inglis through injury, and the decision not to select Slater, ensures this Maroons team is nowhere near as fearsome as it has been.
Given that, if NSW simply play to their potential, they can – and should – win this match.
Here’s the clichéd catch though: the game isn’t played on paper. It’s played on the field, and that field just happens to be in Brisbane.
Suncorp Stadium is an intimidating fortress for the Maroons, and the parochial crowd can lift its local heroes to great feats, while also wilting the opposition. It will be loud. It will be daunting. It will be menacing.
Suncorp will become a living, breathing organism, and the Blues will be fighting the crowd as much as they will be the Maroons.
That tension that is created can do funny things to players. Normally accurate passes can miss their mark. Reliable goal kickers can have an off night. Rock-steady nerves can suddenly be a little frayed.
Then there are the heightened emotions that make players do irrational things like throw a punch, or get overly-niggly in a tackle. Such mental errors can prove extremely costly.
NSW need to stay focussed and control their emotions. If they don’t, Queensland will capitalise, and in the blink of an eye, the game will be over.
I think this NSW team may just surprise a few people, and pull off a victory in Game 1.