The past few decades have seen the emergence of superstars like Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, who could go down as Immortals. But where does James Maloney fit in?
For roughly the last decade, this is the period of State of Origin football where New South Wales and their fans have traditionally felt the most optimistic: before the series. Before that pesky thing we call ‘reality’ kicks in.
They say that ‘hope springs eternal’, yet for New South Welshmen, the phrase hasn’t been all that apt, for it failed to take into account Queensland, and their ability to crush NSW dreams.
It lacked the context that when the Maroons flexed their muscles, they could make the Blues and their supporters realise how just how inferior they truly were.
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However, this year, the optimism is a little different. There is a sense that the feelings of positivity are – shock horror – actually warranted.
Yes, even Queensland would have to admit that the Blues’ chances of winning this year have greatly improved.
No Cameron Smith. No Cooper Cronk. No Johnathan Thurston. The absence of those three alone is more than enough for any sense of Blues confidence to not feel completely misguided.
Throw in a new coach, a significant amount of fresh talent, and the addition via subtraction that comes from not picking players that have either failed to perform on the field, or bring distractions courtesy of their behaviour off it, and you can certainly forgive NSW for feeling like things are different this year.
As ever, all the NSW optimism will count for nothing if they don’t actually play well on the park. Queensland still has plenty of elite-level talent or in-form players, and despite what the bookies say, should start favourites to win the series.
The Blues will be looking to start strong and win Game 1 in Melbourne, and in order to do that, they’ll need to do the following three things.
1. Their kicking game needs to be great
The brilliance of Billy Slater can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve seen him live and watched the ground he covers in defence. The man is an absolute freak. He makes average kicks look like terrible kicks, by getting to them on the full and counter-attacking at pace. His defensive positioning is without peer.
However, if the Blues are feeling a little relaxed with the news that Slater has been ruled out with an injury, they really shouldn’t be. For as great as the No.1 has been, the fact is, NSW’s kicking has often contributed to his fantastic Origin performances.
Numerous times over their Origin drought, the NSW halves have almost looked like they’re providing the Queensland fullback with catching practice, such has been the consistency with which they have hit him on the chest. It’s often negated some solid work by the NSW forwards, while also handing momentum to their opponents.
For Game 1 at the MCG, NSW need to find the grass – or even the sideline, when required – with their kicks. It will change the complexion of the game if the Maroons backs aren’t provided the opportunity to gain easy metres, counter-attack quickly, or ensure the first tackle in their set is closer to halfway than their tryline.
Their halves must ensure Queensland are pinned down in their half, and good field position capitilised on.
That execution can’t be limited to their long kicking game either. When given the chance to attack Queensland’s line, deft, clever and patient short kicks are required. Repeat sets are a must, not just ‘hopeful’ bombs.
For NSW to apply, and maintain, pressure on Queensland, it all starts and finishes with their kicking game.
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2. Finish the half strong
NSW need to treat the last five minutes of the first half like they would the last five minutes of the game. They simply cannot switch off.
So many times during Queensland’s dynasty, the Blues have made crucial mistakes on the stroke of halftime that have ultimately proved costly. Some impressive football has been completely undone by squandering an opportunity to ram home the advantage with a try, or even worse, allowing Queensland to score one.
Origin is such a fast-paced game that many players are gasping for air after 25 minutes. As physical fatigue sets in, the mental errors creep in, and this can really manifest itself just before halftime, when players have one eye on the scoreboard, desperate for a rest.
With 11 debutants, a surprised, shell-shocked and fatigued team is a distinct possibility for NSW in the opening stanza. Origin can hit you like that. So it’s incumbent upon coach Brad Fittler to drum into his inexperienced team that they must finish the half strong.
From the 35-minute mark, it’s vital that NSW are completely faultless, and completely focussed.
Queensland have made a habit out of finishing both halves strong, and while it’s a cliché to say that you must ‘play the full 80′, NSW must learn from previous mistakes, and do just that.
3. Let ’em loose!
There’s no point buying a new Ferrari and then just leaving it in the garage.
The Blues have picked some exciting pace in their squad, so now they must get them some quality ball, and let them run.
James Tedesco, Tom Trobjevic, Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts and Josh Addo-Carr represent a quick, and potentially electric, backline. The selections of these five players was not conservative, so neither can the tactics of using them be. NSW should play with some flair, spread the ball wide, and let the speedsters be just that: speedy.
There will be some mistakes from this quintet, and I especially expect more than a few errors in defence. Given the personnel, it’s almost a given. However, this only amplifies the need to let them make up for it in attack.
Origin battles are usually won up the middle of the park. It’s tough, it’s hard and it’s rugged. I don’t expect this game, or series, to be any different. Yet you still need to score points, and this NSW backline has some tries in them. Let the forwards battle it out, but also have this backline provided plenty of opportunities, including second-phase ball.
The Blues’ halves – apart from kicking well – need to spread the ball wide, and let the NSW pace test Queensland.
If they can do that, along with finishing the first half strong, the Blues will be well on their way to going up one nil in the series.
NSW Blues 26
Queensland Maroons 18