Well, it might be November, but in the whacky world of coronavirus, that means it’s Origin time. New South Wales and Queensland are ready to renew hostilities in Australia’s greatest sporting rivalry, but is it going to be one-way traffic as the pundits suggest?
Maybe, but it’s not quite as certain as you might thing.
For one thing, the Queenslanders have Wayne Bennett coaching. That is worth something. So is the experience of players like Josh Papalii, Daly Cherry-Evans and Cameron Munster.
But pound for pound, position for position, the Blues come into the series and Game 1 in Adelaide as the deserved favourites.
They are the defending series champions and arguably, particularly in the backline, are stronger than they were last year.
As much as both teams made some baffling decisions ahead of the series, including David Klemmer being left out of the Brad Fittler’s squad and Moeaki Fotuaika failing to make the Bennett’s 17 when it was named late last week, NSW are the team to beat.
So, where is this one going to be won?
Queensland’s kicking game must be perfect
The one area which Queensland could look at and call a strength with any real certainty is their kicking game.
While Cherry-Evans may not have played for a month, the Queensland captain has one of the best all-round kicking games in the competition, but particularly when it comes to the short game.
Given the current way NRL is played, tending to go in long periods of dominance for either side, that short kicking game forcing repeat sets could make all the difference for the men in maroon.
Cherry-Evans is also backed up by some handy kicking options, with Cameron Munster, AJ Brimson and Jake Friend all capable of contributing.
It’s this versatility, backed with the running game of Brimson and Munster, which may keep the Blues’ defence guessing and will, regardless of the respective talent in the backline, make the Maroons a hard team to defend if they get a head of steam.
And there will be periods of that, because while their forwards may not be quite on par with the Blues, they have enough talent to take over the game in chunks. A strong kicking game will only aid that process and give them a chance of building pressure.
The influence of James Tedesco could make all the difference
Brad Fittler’s team is littered with stars.
The top three in the Dally M Medal (with two playing out of position) are all in the side, Damien Cook, who has performed strongly at Origin level is there, and then there are the likes of former back-to-back premiers Luke Keary, Boyd Cordner, Daniel Tupou and James Tedesco in the starting 13.
It’s the latter of those who is again the focus though.
While 2019 was the best year of Tedesco’s career and, just maybe, the best individual season ever put together by any player in the modern era, 2020 hasn’t been quite the same.
Despite that, he has still been in superb form. Given the way his game tends to go to the next level whenever he plays Origin, you’d have to anticipate more of the game for the man they call Teddy.
Origin, especially against a team with so many debutants, is an excellent arena for Tedesco. He is one of the best in the competition at making the most of broken-field play and with a side dripping with creativity around him, there should be plenty of that to exploit.
But it’s not just his try-scoring and assisting exploits which Queensland must maintain – it’s the way he gets sets off to a fantastic start. And it’s not just him, but the entire back three, with Tupou and Josh Addo-Carr also among the best at doing the hard yards.
This made all the difference in last year’s Origin series and could do so again as they line up against Brimson, Phil Sami and Xavier Coates.
Josh Papalii will need to have the game of his life
If Queensland are going to win, then it comes down to the way their forwards can dominate the middle third and almost make this a Melbourne Storm-style scrap.
Josh Papalii, who has constantly proven himself to be the best front rower in the competition this season, needs to lead from the front.
He has some decent support, but there is a reason the Green Machine made it as far as they did into the finals. Without Papalii, they wouldn’t have made it passed the Roosters.
That’s how good he is and was.
In that semi-final, he scored a try and ran for 189 metres, but numbers like that were part and parcel of the weekly game for Papalii. His Origin numbers have never matched his club stats though and last year he only averaged 99 metres per game across the series. That has to change if the Maroons are going to stand any chance.
Christian Welch will also need to play as well as he has virtually every week since Round 9 of the competition if his pack are going to get on top early and set a platform for their bench.
Which brings me to…
New South Wales will hammer Queensland on the bench
This might be the biggest determining factor. NSW’s bench is just unreal.
Payne Haas and Cameron Murray probably both walk into the Maroons starting 13, while Angus Crichton is also excellent in the second row.
Cody Walker, if he plays anywhere near his best, also adds plenty. His form for South Sydney this year was electric at times and as long as he doesn’t overplay his hand, he could be incredibly dangerous playing as a floater either side of halftime or late in the game, depending on when he is introduced.
The bench has taken an even greater role than usual since the six-again rule was introduced earlier this season, and so the Blues could really seize the momentum through the middle portion of the game, even if Papalii and co can do the job early in the piece.
That middle portion appears most likely to decide the result of Origin 1, so unless Jai Arrow can make waves from the pine, NSW could well run away with it.