Which Origin camp would you rather be in: NSW, with a settled side coming off a crushing upset win, or Queensland, who’ve made winning deciders look as easy as anything in recent years?
If you’d said five weeks ago we’d be coming into Game 3 with the series still alive, it would hardly have been the most outlandish prediction. But the way in which we’ve got to this decider? Let’s just say, to those of you who predicted the way this series has unfolded, well done.
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It’s a rarity for Queensland to be coming into a must-win Origin 3 as the underdogs, but that’s exactly what they deserve after their Game 2 performance. Their forwards were as insipid as you’ll see from a side decked out in maroon, and the backs just weren’t able to influence the game on the back of that disadvantage up front.
While Christian Welch and Joe Ofahengaue will improve the pack, the loss of Matt Gillett is a blow to Kevin Walters, particularly with Jai Arrow still on the sidelines. The Broncos veteran is a reliable defender and can be counted on for 80 minutes. With 20 Origins under his belt, his experience will also be sorely missed.
It goes without saying that Kalyn Ponga, too, is a massive out. He might have gone AWOL in Origin 2, but played a telling hand in the series-opening victory in Brisbane, laying on two try assists in the second half.
Cameron Munster isn’t much of a step down in the No.1 jersey – and he might be a more dangerous attacking prospect than when he’s got the 6 on his back – but it does make the halves look considerably less dangerous. Corey Norman is in solid form for the Dragons, but it’s hard to think of a less-credentialled Maroons five-eighth in recent memory.
Playing alongside Norman, Daly Cherry-Evans must control the game, having hardly made an impact in Perth. It is admittedly hard for a halfback to do much behind such a badly beaten pack, and he’ll need far better service out of dummy-half from Ben Hunt.
Also look for more involvement from Michael Morgan. The Cowboys skipper is a great club player but hasn’t done much in attack for the Maroons this year, and has his centre channel was targetted by the Blues with great effect two Sundays ago. A switch to the bench, with Moses Mbye coming into the starting backline, has been rumoured, and it would be a savvy selection switch-up from Walters.
Having gone to Perth with almost as many questions over the side as they did new players, NSW know a repeat performance will get them consecutive series wins for the first time since 2005, but also well aware there’s no way the Maroons will be as listless as they were last time out.
Brad Fittler has a stronger side at his disposal than he did for the 38-6 victory, with David Klemmer a far more proven Origin performer than the suspended Tariq Sims. The Newcastle prop is exactly the kind of player you want in your side for an Origin decider.
The same cannot be said for the team’s other inclusion. Mitchell Pearce might be one of the NRL’s form players right now, but his miserable history in the NSW set-up is no secret. He’s lost all seven of the Game 3s he’s played, six of which were deciders.
It’s gone well past being a monkey on his back – the Newcastle halfback has an entire zoo on his shoulders.
Given James Maloney’s outstanding performance in Perth, Pearce would be well placed to take a back seat tonight. With so much attacking talent alongside him – James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Josh Addo-Carr, Damien Cook, Wade Graham and Maloney – there’s no need to force the issue.
All Pearce needs to do is aim up in defence, kick well, let Maloney control the game and chime in on attack when the opportunity presents itself. Nathan Cleary has done less than that in his short Origin career to date, and his winning percentage is double Pearce’s. Evidently – at least when playing alongside Maloney – playing a passive role seems to work.
NSW should win this one. Their pack dominated Game 2 and looks stronger for Game 3. Their backs can bend the line out wide, meaning they can still get solid go-forward if Queensland block up the middle as they did so well in Game 1. And if the centre of the field opens up, the speed of Tedesco, Cook and Tom Trbojevic is lethal.
The Maroons are missing three key players through injury, and have a few others playing out of position. Which, now you think about it, actually sounds an awful lot like some of the things we said about the Blues a fortnight ago.
The intangibles definitely point Queensland’s way. They haven’t lost an Origin decider since 2005. They are ridiculously adept at rising for the big occasion. Mitchell Pearce has been a bad-luck charm in this arena since he first pulled on a sky blue jersey.
But those recent – and even not-so-recent – wins in deciders came when a host of once-in-a-generation talents all somehow ended up in the same era. Pearce’s losses all came when his side had a talent deficit further in the red than a set of GFC accounts.
This time, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston aren’t there to tip the balance in Queensland’s favour, while New South Wales are coming off their most emphatic win since Andrew Johns wore the No.7.
At home, Origin 3 should go to the Blues. Just.
New South Wales by six.