The stage is set for what promises to be a massive State of Origin decider, with the Blues on the verge of not only claiming consecutive series victories for the first time since 2005 but also potentially winning the series in front of their fans for the first time since 2004.
After dropping the first game 18-14 in Brisbane despite leading 8-0 at half-time, coach Brad Fittler’s side brought the intensity in the second game, thrashing the Maroons 38-6 at Optus Stadium over two weeks ago to force a series decider at ANZ Stadium, which will be the first ‘live’ decider since 2013.
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It will also be the first Game 3 played in Sydney since 2016, but on that occasion the Maroons had already won the series inside the first two matches before the Blues pegged back the final game with victory in front of their fans.
On Wednesday night the Blues will start as heavy favourites to secure what would be just their third series victory since 2005, when Andrew Johns produced a masterclass in his final game for New South Wales to crush the Maroons 32-10 in Game 3 at Suncorp Stadium.
It is also the last time the Blues have won a ‘live’ series decider – the last time they won a live decider on home turf in 2004, when now-coach Brad Fittler inspired his state to a 36-14 win at ANZ Stadium.
That being said, on four of the last five occasions New South Wales has won the series they’ve had to lift the shield at a near-empty Suncorp Stadium – on all but one of them they won the series inside the first two matches, in 2003, 2014 and 2018.
As far as personnel is concerned, Mitchell Pearce comes in for Nathan Cleary, who has been ruled out of the decider after suffering an ankle injury in Game 2 in Perth, while David Klemmer returns in place of suspended Dragons enforcer Tariq Sims.
A victory Wednesday night would see Pearce, who has led the Newcastle Knights impressively this season, complete the greatest redemption story in Origin history, given the constant criticism and ridicule he has copped over the past decade.
He sat out the 2014 series, which the Blues won, due to an off-field incident at Kings Cross nightclub, while a sternum injury also saw him sit out last year’s victorious campaign.
History is against the Blues, who have won only four of 19 live deciders since the State of Origin concept began in 1980, the most recent 14 years ago.
Meantime, the Maroons will have had over two weeks to lick their wounds following their 38-6 defeat in Perth, their second-worst against the Blues after the 56-16 humiliation they copped in the 2000 dead rubber.
Injury has forced Knights custodian Kalyn Ponga out of the side, with Cameron Munster to deputise at fullback. One of two debutants, Corey Norman, thus steps into the role of five-eighth to partner captain Daly Cherry-Evans in the halves.
The Melbourne Storm’s Christian Welch is the other debutant, while Bronco Joe Ofahengaue returns after missing Game 2 due to injury. Jarrod Wallace and Dylan Napa are the other two players to make way, while Matt Gillett is in serious doubt after suffering an injury at training.
Why the Blues will win
Firstly, they are at home, and their crushing Game 2 win will see them start at the shortest-priced favourites for an Origin decider in over a decade.
Halfback Mitchell Pearce, who has been unfairly named by many as the face of the state’s Origin failures over the past decade, will also have a point to prove after earning himself a recall following impressive club form with the Newcastle Knights.
He will partner James Maloney in what has proven to be a winning combination, the pair having guided the Sydney Roosters to premiership glory in 2013, coincidentally against Daly Cherry-Evans, who will be lining up for the Maroons on the opposite side of the halfway line.
Why the Maroons will win
History has favoured the northerners when it comes to deciding games – they have won 15 of 19 including the last seven in succession (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017), breaking New South Wales hearts in two of them (2008 and 2013).
They’ll also have a point to prove after being smashed in the second game, and surely they won’t produce a repeat performance in what could possibly be Kevin Walters’s final game as coach of the side, given he has been sounded out to coach the Gold Coast Titans in 2020 (though his contract as Maroons coach expires at the end of next season).
Debutant Corey Norman has proven to be a matchwinner for the Dragons this season, kicking clutch field goals to sink the Brisbane Broncos and Newcastle Knights on the road in consecutive weeks earlier this year.
However, he alone won’t be the trusted source for the Maroons tomorrow night – a full team effort is required if they are to cause an upset and prove that their dynasty isn’t over after all.
At home New South Wales should take the chocolates by 14 points.