And so State of Origin is upon us for another year. Queensland host the series opener at Suncorp Stadium, hoping to reclaim the title they lost to Brad Fittler’s Blues last year.
Game 1 looms as a clash between two sides who, despite carrying contrasting weaknesses, look to be quite evenly matched. How Fittler and Maroons counterpart Kevin Walters exploit their opponents’ flaws while hiding their own will go some way to deciding the outcome.
For the home side, the most obvious strength is in the halves. New skipper Daly Cherry-Evans and five-eighth Cameron Munster are proven Origin performers. Both are the best at their position, both have tasted series success, and both have been the best player in an Origin – you can ignore Billy Slater’s
lifetime achievement man of the match award from Game 3 last year.
The duo tore apart the Blues in that aforementioned victory against a side which had already wrapped up the series. With New South Wales clearly boasting a better forward pack tonight, Cherry-Evans’ and Munster’s game management and kicking game will be critical.
If they can pin James Tedesco, Josh Addo-Carr and Nick Cotric deep in their red-zone to start sets, suddenly Queensland’s pack won’t look so weak.
They will also have to manage the game superbly, slowing it down and ensuring the Maroons bench isn’t required for long stints.
Here sits one of the main weaknesses with Walters’ side. Joe Ofahenguae and David Fifita are both outstanding talents deserving of Origin selection, but neither spend much time out in the middle. Fifita hasn’t played more than half an hour for the Broncos since Round 7, while Ofahenguae is usually around a 45-minute contributor, as is third reserve forward Dylan Napa.
The NSW bench, meanwhile, is full of NRL starters: Cameron Murray, Payne Haas and Angus Crichton play big minutes at club level. A fast, physically draining game would suit the Blues to a tee.
Two New South Wales starters will be looking to speed the match up from the get-go. Hooker Damien Cook’s pace out of dummy half is tremendous, and James Tedesco’s ability to break through the middle of the field is lethal.
As good a hooker as Walters claims he is, Ben Hunt is a natural halfback who isn’t in great form. Cook and Tedesco will be eyeing off him off in the no.9 jersey as a major weakness in the middle of the Queensland defence. Easy metres are often an oxymoron in Origin, so if Hunt’s tackling is found out, allowing New South Wales are able to get some quick play the balls and their forwards running at a back-pedalling defence, the Blues will be awfully hard to beat.
Hunt’s selection makes picking Moses Mbye on the bench downright perplexing. Mbye is in good form for the Tigers, but is a fullback who can play a bit of five-eighth. His versatility isn’t great and he’s certainly not a recognised hooker, so is ill-equipped to change the flow of the game if Hunt needs a breather.
His opposite number, on the other hand, is a perfect utility. Jack Wighton can cover any position in the backline bar halfback, as well as hooker and the back row at a stretch. On the bench and around the ruck, it’s advantage Blues.
In the halves, it’s a different story. Cody Walker, for all his great form with the Rabbitohs, is making an Origin debut. Nathan Cleary’s form isn’t as bad as Penrith’s win-loss record suggests, but he is nontheless coming off an Origin series in which he contributed not a single line break, try assist or line break assist.
James Maloney was outstanding for the Blues last year, but with him out of the side in 2019, all the pressure falls on Cleary to make the step up to Origin level so many think him capable of.
That’s not to say he has to force his hand and be involved in everything – Cook, Tedesco and Walker can kickstart most of the Blues’ attacks.
It’s Cleary’s kicking game which will be crucial in a side without many other fifth-tackle options. Cook can contribute from dummy half with the boot here and there and Walker is armed with some good short kicks, but Cleary will be forced to carry the brunt of the punting pressure.
It’s a far cry from Queensland’s glut of kickers – in addition to Munster and Cherry-Evans, Hunt and Michael Morgan both do lots of the heavy lifting on that for their clubs, and Kalyn Ponga can chip in, too.
Making Cleary’s task easier will be the NSW forward pack. While Matt Gillett’s return is a boon for Queensland and Josh Papalii is the form prop in the NRL, the Blues’ starting pack screams quality. David Klemmer, captain Boyd Cordner, Jake Trbojevic and Tyson Frizell are all proven guns at this level.
Maybe they can give the 21-year-old halfback the platform to excel which he just hasn’t been afforded at Penrith this year.
Halves notwithstanding, the backlines are evenly matched. Josh Addo-Carr and James Tedesco were integral parts of last year’s series victory, while the Maroons boast proven Origin performers in Dane Gagai, Morgan and Will Chambers.
Queensland will look to target Cotric on his Origin debut, but the Canberra winger has appeared a rep player since making his NRL debut.
The more obvious issue for the Blues is Josh Morris. A wonderful club man who’s been a standout defender for New South Wales in the past, he’s now past his best days. We may be sitting here tonight talking about how great his experience was for Fittler, but a more likely scenario is discussing how Tom Trbojevic’s return for Game 2 will force the Sharks centre from the side.
In terms of game-breakers, both sides have a standout: Latrell Mitchell for the Blues, Kalyn Ponga for the Maroons.
Mitchell bossed the experienced Chambers around last year in his debut series and will be confident of repeating the dose this time around. His surging, tackle-busting tendencies can break the game open for New South Wales, and provide them with a lethal option on the left edge.
Ponga, meanwhile, is the most exciting player on either side. He was outstanding during his lone Origin appearance last year, and that was playing as a lock. At his natural fullback position, playing with two of the best halves in the business, he will be a nightmare for the Blues.
Look for him to chime in on attack at the back end of the first half and as the game progresses, testing tired forwards through the middle and slicing into gaps out wide. If the match is tight heading into the last ten minutes, Ponga is the man most likely to tip it in favour of his side.
At any rate, his battle with Tedesco is one any league fan will be salivating over.
Tipping a side in this one comes down to whether you think two world-class halves can overcome a better pack or whether the stronger forwards will nullify the playmakers’ influence.
It’s an awfully tough one to predict, but the Blues’ better big men are too hard to ignore, particularly when coupled with a stronger bench and a gulf in class – and familiarity – at hooker.
New South Wales by eight.