First he defended the shield, then he claimed back-to-back medals.
Tomorrow night, Queensland and New South Wales will go to war in the first match of the annual three-match State of Origin series.
With several key players for both states rendering themselves unavailable due to injury and/or retirement, this year’s series shapes as an even one.
Having won last year’s series by way of victory in the first two games, the Blues will be attempting to win back-to-back series for the first time since 2004-05, and thus prove that last year’s series win was no fluke.
Despite his poor club form with the Penrith Panthers, coach Brad Fittler has gambled on halfback Nathan Cleary, with Newcastle Knights captain Mitchell Pearce ruling himself out with a groin injury suffered in their Round 11 win over his old club, the Sydney Roosters.
Pearce had led the Knights to five consecutive victories, being man of the match in each of them, fuelling speculation that he would make a return to the side he represented 18 times between 2008 and 2017.
But the untimely injury left Fittler with no option but to retain Cleary in the number seven guernsey, where he will be paired with Rabbitohs stand-off Cody Walker, who is one of five debutants for the Blues.
The other four to debut are Nick Cotric, Jack Wighton, Payne Haas and Cameron Murray, while veteran Josh Morris earns a recall following impressive club form for the Cronulla Sharks.
Boyd Cordner will captain the side for a third straight year. The Blues’ 17 are as follows:
James Tedesco, Nick Cotric, Latrell Mitchell, Josh Morris, Josh Addo-Carr, Cody Walker, Nathan Cleary, David Klemmer, Damien Cook, Paul Vaughan, Boyd Cordner (captain), Tyson Frizell, Jake Trbojevic. Interchange: Jack Wighton, Payne Haas, Cameron Murray, Angus Crichton.
Changes from Game 3 last year:
In: Nick Cotric, Josh Morris, Cody Walker, Jack Wighton, Payne Haas, Cameron Murray.
Out: Tom Trbojevic, James Roberts, James Maloney, Jack de Belin, Tariq Sims, Tyrone Peachey.
On the other side of the border, the Maroons will have a fourth captain in three years, following the retirement from representative football of Cameron Smith and the playing retirements of Greg Inglis and Billy Slater in recent times.
The man fourth-year coach Kevin Walters has anointed to lead the side on the field is Sea Eagles captain Daly Cherry-Evans, who steps up despite suffering an ankle injury during his side’s Round 7 win over the Canberra Raiders in April.
Injuries to specialist hookers Andrew McCullough and Jake Friend, among others, has forced Walters to name Dragons halfback Ben Hunt in the number nine guernsey, though he had the option of naming Cowboys rake Jake Granville in this position.
As far as debutants are concerned, Joe Ofahengaue, Moses Mbye and David Fifita will be the ones to don the Maroon jumper for the first time, while Kalyn Ponga and Michael Morgan, among others, return to the side after missing Game 3 last year.
From the side that beat the Blues in the third game last year by 18-12, Billy Slater has retired, while Valentine Holmes is trying his luck in the NFL, Andrew McCullough is injured, and Jarrod Wallace, Coen Hess and Gavin Cooper were omitted. Tim Glasby remains as 18th man.
The Maroons’ 17 are as follows:
Kalyn Ponga, Corey Oates, Michael Morgan, Will Chambers, Dane Gagai, Cameron Munster, Daly Cherry-Evans (captain), Jai Arrow, Ben Hunt, Josh Papalii, Felise Kaufusi, Matt Gillett, Josh McGuire. Interchange: Moses Mbye, Joe Ofahengaue, Dylan Napa, David Fifita.
Changes from Game 3 last year:
In: Kalyn Ponga, Michael Morgan, Matt Gillett, Moses Mbye, Joe Ofahengaue, Dylan Napa, David Fifita.
Out: Billy Slater, Valentine Holmes, Andrew McCullough, Gavin Cooper, Jarrod Wallace, Coen Hess, Tim Glasby.
Why the Maroons will win
To state the obvious, the Maroons are playing at home and they’ll be hoping that a crowd of over 50,000 Maroons supporters will spur them onto a win in the first game.
And while they lost the series last year, they can take heart that they did win the final game last year to prevent being white-washed for the first time since 2000.
Upon naming his side for Game 1, coach Kevin Walters has declared war on the Blues, stating that he is seriously intent on wrestling the shield back from the southerners, and a Game 1 win at home will go a long way towards doing that.
Kalyn Ponga has emerged as the form player for the Newcastle Knights during their recent mid-season revival and there is no doubt that he will again stand up on the Origin arena, having impressed on his debut in Game 2 last year.
Why the Blues will win
Last year’s series win vindicated the Blues’ decision to pick Brad Fittler as coach, the appointment coming about given his service to the state as a player during the nineties and early noughties.
Among the first things he did last year was to overhaul the side from Game 3, 2017, gambling by naming eleven debutants of which most made the most of their opportunities, namely James Tedesco, Latrell Mitchell, Josh Addo-Carr and Nathan Cleary.
With a few more games together, this will lay a platform for the Blues to build on what they hope is a long dynasty, but one that is unlikely to ever match (or even beat) the eight consecutive series wins the Maroons notched between 2006 and 2013 inclusive.
Also, the last two times there was a Game 1 in Brisbane, the Blues were victorious (2014 and 2017), but could only convert the 2014 win into a series victory (though they would lose the final game at Suncorp that year by 32-8).
Thus, a win on enemy soil would allow them to possibly wrap up the series in Perth before they get to celebrate with their fans in Game 3 which will be played at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium on July 10.
A tough call, but at home I think Queensland will get up by two points.