The retirement of Boyd Cordner this week was not at all unexpected.
With the all-conquering Queensland side decimated by the retirements from representative football of Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, and the absence of Billy Slater through injury, this is looming as New South Wales’ best chance to end over a decade of State of Origin misery.
Brad Fittler in taking over from Laurie Daley is the fifth different man to take the reins of the state since 2005, and will be hoping to emulate Ricky Stuart’s feat of winning the series in his first year as coach of the Blues.
The omens are good for the 45-year-old – three of the last four NSW Origin coaches (Daley in 2013, Craig Bellamy in 2008 and Graham Murray in 2006) won their first games in charge, with Stuart losing the first match of the 2011 series in his second stint as coach (after the successful 2005 series).
Already the former Sydney Roosters captain has made it clear that he will not tolerate any more underachieving, naming eleven debutants – the most by the state in nearly three decades and the most by either state since Queensland blooded ten debutants in the first game of the 2001 series.
Among the debutants include Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary, who will partner his club teammate James Maloney in the halves.
While they haven’t played many matches together owing to a knee injury suffered earlier this season, their presence at the foot of the mountains has proven instrumental in their side rising to the top of the ladder.
They orchestrated quite easily the club’s most impressive win for the season when they thrashed the previously ladder-leading St George Illawarra Dragons by 28-2 at Panthers Stadium in Round 12. It was the last hit-out for both teams before they both had the bye in the weekend just passed.
Though both the Panthers and Dragons have the same amount of premiership points and the same points differential (+109), it’s the former team that sits on top by way of percentage (more commonly used in the AFL to distinctly determine ladder positions) – 164.88 per cent to the Dragons’ 156.77 per cent.
These percentages are calculated by points for divided by points against, times 100. The Panthers have conceded just 168 points, which is the best in the NRL, while the Dragons have coughed up 192 points, the third-best.
Between them, the Panthers (another two) and Dragons (three) make up seven of the Blues’ 17, with Tyrone Peachey, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin and Paul Vaughan the other representatives from their respective clubs.
Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr and Broncos centre James Roberts will also become the first players from their clubs to don the Blues jumper since Ryan Hoffman in 2014 and Peter Wallace in 2009 respectively.
Captain Boyd Cordner, as well as James Tedesco, James Maloney, David Klemmer, Tyson Frizell and Jake Trbojevic, are the only players to retain their places from last year’s Game III defeat at Suncorp Stadium.
Here is the 17 that coach Brad Fittler has named:
James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts, Josh Addo-Carr, James Maloney, Nathan Cleary, David Klemmer, Damien Cook, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Boyd Cordner (c), Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin. Interchange: Paul Vaughan, Jake Trbojevic, Angus Crichton, Tyrone Peachey. 18th man: Tariq Sims. 19th man: Nick Cotric.
We now swing our focus to the Queensland side, which for the first time since Game II of the 1999 series will not have any of Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk or Cameron Smith in the side.
Thurston, Cronk and most recently Smith have all announced their retirements from rep football, with the former to retire at the end of this year following 17 seasons in the NRL, all but three of them with his beloved North Queensland Cowboys.
Slater, on the other hand, has been ruled out of the opening game due to a hamstring injury, but after announcing that his series will be his last, he’ll be hoping to make it onto the park for the other two games, the last of them a farewell game at Suncorp Stadium.
The Storm fullback’s withdrawal has left some large shoes to be filled in the Maroons’ backline, with coach Kevin Walters to make a decision as to who out of Kalyn Ponga or Anthony Milford will be named.
The holes left by Thurston, Cronk and Smith will be filled by Cameron Munster, Ben Hunt and Andrew McCullough respectively, with the latter to be just the state’s third different hooker since Smith’s debut in Game III, 2003.
Rabbitohs centre Greg Inglis has been handed the captaincy, this coming after he missed the entire series last year due to a serious knee injury which sidelined him for all but one match of the 2017 season.
His return to football has coincided with his club’s rise up the ladder, with the Bunnies sitting pretty in third place on the ladder with nine wins (including their last five in a row) and four losses, and, with the competition’s most potent attack.
His representation for the Maroons has drawn endless controversy south of the border, given he was born in Kempsey, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, and played the majority of his junior football in the state.
Yet he claimed eligibility for Queensland by way of living in Brisbane around the time he was signed by, and made his NRL debut for, the Melbourne Storm as an 18-year-old in 2005.
Hunt, meantime, has been given the responsibility of the number seven guernsey after impressing for the Dragons as they led the competition for the first eleven rounds of the season.
His last outing saw him suffer a thigh injury in the thrashing at the hands of the Panthers over a week ago, which cost the Red V top spot on the ladder on percentage. However, he has been green-lighted and will take his place in the Maroons’ line-up.
The most notable omissions from the side are Darius Boyd, who has somewhat paid the price for not only his poor individual form but also the Broncos’ inconsistent form all year, and Matt Scott, whose Cowboys side languish close to the bottom of the ladder with just four wins for the year.
The Queensland team, as named by Kevin Walters, is as follows:
TBD, Valentine Holmes, Greg Inglis, Will Chambers, Dane Gagai, Cameron Munster, Ben Hunt, Dylan Napa, Andrew McCullough, Jarrod Wallace, Gavin Cooper, Felise Kaufusi, Josh McGuire. Interchange: Michael Morgan, Josh Papalii, Coen Hess, Jai Arrow.
So now let’s get to the series, and in particular this match, which will be played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, marking the first time since 2012 that the first game is played in AFL heartland.
It also marks the second time in the past four years that an Origin match will be contested at the ground, after the Blues won in Game II, 2015 by 26-18.
Prior to that, the Maroons won the past three matches played in Melbourne, all at Etihad Stadium, with their series-sealing win in 2006 at what was then known as Telstra Dome kick-starting their ongoing period of domination.
But with several of their stalwarts having retired, this year looms as both a changing of the guard for Kevin Walters’ Maroons, and possibly a new era of dominance for Brad Fittler’s baby Blues, who have bonded closely in the days leading up to the match to familiarise themselves between each other.
During the Maroons’ dominance, it was their experience which won them the big matches and thus eleven out of the past twelve series, whereas the Blues continually experimented, year after year and especially in the halves, in their bid to overcome this great Queensland team.
They were able to succeed once, in 2014 with Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson as the halves partners. They were both part of the Bulldogs side which continued to perform consistently under then-coach Des Hasler, reaching the grand final that year which they lost to the Rabbitohs.
Still, the Maroons scored more points than the Blues across the three matches of that series, scoring 44 points to 26. But what mattered more was that the Blues won the first two games to end the Maroons’ Origin series winning streak at eight, before normal programming resumed.
To the present now, and with Game I being played on neutral ground, a win for either state will prove crucial to how the series eventually shapes out.
If the Blues, with the largely inexperienced side assembled by rookie coach Brad Fittler, a man who knows his state inside out, can take it out, then this will put them into the box seat to seal the series in their own backyard, with Game II to be played at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
They, however, won’t want to make the same mistake they did last year when, after winning the opening game in Brisbane quite easily, they played to defend rather than to win in the second game and that was what cost them the match, and eventually the series.
Should the next-generation Maroons win, and the Blues hold in Game II, the northerners will be in pole position to take out their twelfth series win in the past thirteen years at home, and possibly send Billy Slater out of the Origin arena on a winning note, as they did for Darren Lockyer in 2011.
So, all the talking is done, and now it’s time for the players to deliver.
Bring it on.