Boyd Cordner has been retained as captain in a Kangaroos merit team that features emerging NRL premiership-winning stars Tino Fa’asumaleaui and Ryan Papenhuyzen.
They’re running scared. You can tell.
The signs are everywhere, from the hunted look in Kevin Walters’s damp, jellylike eyes, to the desperate insistence that they’re perfectly happy to have Ben Hunt playing hooker, to the indefinable sense of panic that drives ordinary rational men to pick Michael Morgan in the centres.
Queensland is beset with panic. And by god it’s glorious.
Just see how coach Walters has banned his players from using the words ‘New South Wales’ or ‘Blues’ while in camp. Think of how awkward that must make communication at training.
“So, let’s run that drill where we try to expose the weakness on the left edge of…the team that we are playing.”
“Remember not to take…that team…lightly. The players who will be representing…the state to which we are opposed…are good players and we will need to be on our game.”
“What kind of music do you like, Daly? I enjoy the White Stripes and their modern take on…a certain genre that arose in the US in the first half of the twentieth century as exemplified by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.”
It’s absurd. But these are the kinds of mad moves men make when they are panicking, when they are lying awake at night drenched in cold sweat, unable to sleep lest they have that nightmare again: the one where Josh Addo-Carr keeps turning Kalyn Ponga inside out and Latrell Mitchell brings back the grenade celebration.
The terror in the Queensland camp is so obvious, you can smell it from Wollongong. The way Walters listed all his players and told the press how brilliant they all were: no truly confident coach would do that.
Were he really feeling sure of himself, he would know that there are some players you talk up, and some players whose presence in the squad you quietly try not to draw attention to, and some players who are Jai Arrow.
No, he’s scared, and so is the whole state. Because they know New South Wales is coming for them.
They know that unlike 2014, 2018 was not just a blip. They know the astonishing Smith-Thurston-Slater-Cronk-Inglis-Boyd era is over, and now, for the first time in what seems like centuries, NSW actually has the better team. And not just the better team, but one that is hungry and driven and bent on inflicting a little of the pain that was dealt south of the border from 2006-2017 back to its progenitors.
They know that now, the frighteningly huge, fast and gifted centre is on the Blue side. That the extravagantly gifted twinkle-toed fullback is no longer a Maroon.
That it’s the Mexicans who possess the lightning-fast winger and the dazzling genius dummy half. Not to mention the big boppers up front, and the massive menace of Payne Haas waiting on the bench to be unleashed like the Hulk on the heli-carrier.
They know it all, and they know their only hope is to stick their chins out, spout false bravado, and pray.
And for this New South Welshman, it is a beautiful thing. A breath of fresh air. Because like all blue-blooded southern sons, I suffered through those eight in a row, and then the three in a row that came after the eight in a row ended.
I spent so many years in agony trying to decide which was worse: getting beaten by a last-gasp try or field goal when you thought there might actually be hope; or being utterly crushed by a rugby league team of almost unfeasible power and talent, in a game in which hope never even poked its head through the clouds?
But I am old enough to have suffered even more before then. I’m old enough to still occasionally wake up screaming with Ray Warren yelling “That’s not a try, that’s a miracle!” in my head.
To recall 1995, when Queensland chose 17 has-beens, never-wases and reserve graders and won three-nil, turning Ben Ikin into a superstar completely against the laws of nature.
I’m even old enough to remember 1987-1989, when a team possibly even greater than the eight-in-a-row combinations massacred NSW without remorse, for eight humiliating games in a row.
To now feel like my Blues are about to more fairly distribute the national store of anguish…well that feels damn good, to be frank.
I’m feeding off Queensland’s fear like Pennywise the clown, and it is more delicious than any meal I’ve ever eaten.
I can say without fear of contradiction that a terrified Queenslander is the most gorgeous of all God’s creatures. I am going to savour every minute of it.
Anyway, all that said, my tip: Queensland by 18.