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?
If ever there was a lead-up emblematic of how the two states approach Origin, it’s been this one. Queensland have made two, both injury-forced, changes. New South Wales seven, less than half of them due to their casualty ward.
Look at the changes to the team sheet for Game 2 and you’d never guess there were just the four points between the two sides in the last encounter, nor that an intercept try was one of the Blues’ culprits for their full-time deficit.
To be fair, that 18-14 scoreline in Game 1 doesn’t reveal just how strong the Maroons were in that match. They started the game stronger before a 20-minute period where the Blues threatened to take it away from them, but for the last ten minutes of the first half and much of the remainder of the match, Queensland dominated. In hindsight, they should have scored 30.
While seven changes is an overreaction from Brad Fittler, they for the most part address significant areas of concern from the series opener.
The Blues struggled to start their sets strongly at Suncorp. Bringing in Tom Trbojevic and Jack Wighton in the centres, and particularly Blake Ferguson on the wing, gives Freddy a strong complement of backline runners.
Ferguson is one of the NRL’s hungriest metre-eaters, and will be expected to make early dents in the Queensland defence while his forwards get back behind the ball early in the set.
In Game 1, the way to victory for NSW was clear: make metres up the middle, generate quick play-the-balls, get the Maroons on the back foot, and use the speed of Damien Cook and James Tedesco to break through the middle of the ruck.
When it worked for that 20-minute period in the first half, a win looked on the cards. But when the Maroons closed up the middle, the Blues looked bereft of attacking ability, let alone an idea of how they were going to win that match.
This time around, they look less reliant on making quick metres up the middle. Instead, it’s out wide through the aforementioned backs, as well as back rowers Boyd Cordner, Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims, where they’ll look for inroads. If they can make them there, it’ll open up the centre for Cook and Tedesco.
It’s the opposite of a traditional league gameplan. “Whatever happened to earning the right to go wide?” I hear you ask.
But given the difference in the packs – NSW have just two recognised props in their squad, Queensland a good four or five who can start in the front row – it’s hard to see them bludgeoning up the middle with any great success.
Despite many – including yours truly – proclaiming they had the weaker forwards before Game 1, the Maroons pack clearly won that battle up front. They’ll be looking to repeat the trick with a similar performance this time around.
That really sums up what Kevin Walters’ side needs to do in Perth: more of the same. Outmuscle the Blues forwards, use their better halves to gain strong field position, and use that as a platform for the likes of Cameron Munster and Kalyn Ponga to generate try-scoring opportunities.
The main thing they’ll be looking to improve is their execution. A few loose balls hit the Suncorp deck a two and a half weeks ago, a Dylan Napa knock-on cost them a clear try, and a number of devastating breaks didn’t lead to tries when they should have. Some tightened skills will see the Maroons awfully hard to beat tonight.
James Maloney’s inclusion could be a diffrence-maker. New South Wales’ lack of a second strong kicker to divert attention from Nathan Cleary in Game 1 was glaring, and the Penrith veteran coming into the side at five-eighth addresses that flaw.
He’s a good organiser, he’s played plenty of footy with Cleary, and he was instrumental in last year’s series success. Queensland, you would think, would prefer he wasn’t there.
So much points to a Queensland success here. They’re coming off a victory, boast the better playmakers of the two sides, and, you know, haven’t made seven changes to their team. History tells us using heaps of players is not a recipe for State of Origin success.
The weather, too, benefits the Maroons. The Blues will want to shift the ball wide, and a weekend of rain will do them no favours on that front.
And yet, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if New South Wales manage to bounce back in Perth and force a decider. If they’re able to start their sets better than they did in the second half last time out, if Damien Cook and James Tedesco can burst up the middle, if James Maloney can make a difference in the playmaking stakes, the Blues can certainly win.
The thought of all that happening in the one match, given the Game 1 result, inspires more scepticism than optimism, though. The Maroons should wrap this series up with a game to spare.
Queensland by four.