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Opinion

Here's what Billy Slater needs to do to win Game 1 for the Maroons

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6th June, 2022
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Queensland are fairly decent outsiders for Game One of this year’s State of Origin, and it’s easy to see why. They’re away from home, they lost last year – quite convincingly, too – and on paper, their team isn’t as good as the NSW side.

There’s a lot to be said for the mythical Queenslander spirit, but in the cold hard world of stats, they lose out: their 17 isn’t as stacked, they’re picking a team on form rather than experience and they have a rookie coach.

When discussing how they might win, we have to go through the usual caveats. They have to tackle hard, run hard, kick well and complete high.

You don’t win many games in the park if you don’t do those things, and you sure as hell don’t overcome a talent disparity against a team as good as NSW by doing that.

The Maroons, playing away in likely cold conditions at Homebush, need to keep the game low-scoring and attritional: their last three wins in Sydney have had an average of 21 total points per game, while their last three losses there have averaged 40.6 points per game.

Assuming that winning the middle, kicking well and not making stupid errors are non-negotiables, here are the three game-breaking areas that can deliver success to Billy Slater in his first Origin game.

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Tariq Sims takes a tackle in Origin

Tariq Sims of the Blues is tackled during game three of the 2021 State of Origin Series. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Get the interchanges right

The biggest issue that Queensland are going to face is depth. For all the talk that this is a deeper selection panel than in recent years, I really don’t see it, especially in the rotation.

The Maroons have left out David Fifita, who is injured, and…err…that’s it. Jai Arrow? Jaydn Su’A? This is not a deep pool of forwards.

They’ve picked Lindsay Collins, who I’m not sure I would have picked for the Roosters until recently, plus two debutants off the bench and one starting at lock.

Compare and contrast with the likes of Jake Trbojevic, Angus Crichton, Keaon Koloamatangi and Haumole Olakau’atu deemed surplus to requirements in the Blues’ backrow rotation.

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The first 13, especially through the middle, is good, for 20 minutes or so at least. They have to lay the proverbial platform.

Even last year, when NSW stuck 50 on Queensland in Townsville, they did manage to do that: the first try didn’t come until the Traditional Softening Up PeriodTM had finished.

A big issue last year was that Queensland couldn’t make interchanges when NSW could: all four blokes coming off the bench were worse than the four blokes for the Blues.

This year is the same. If we park the stylistic difference in 14s, Reagan Campbell-Gillard is a better middle than 2022 Collins, Ryan Matterson is at a minimum the equal of Pat Carrigan and Liam Martin is better than Jeremiah Nanai: at least on past performance, given their NRL stats are quite similar but Martin has a much larger sample size to back him up, and has played Origin before.

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That means Slater has to be really, really clever with his interchanges to cover up talent disparity.

Martin and Nanai are missed tackle machines on an edge – 1 and 2 in the NRL for regular backrowers – but Martin is playing in a cohesive block with his club teammates and has experience at this level.

Slater has to deploy Nanai cleverly to maximise his attacking intent while hiding his occasionally shaky tackling and handling. Kurt Capewell and Felise Kaufusi are experienced operators, 80-minute players in the NRL and perfect for the ‘solid and unspectacular’ role.

Nanai, conversely, can be spectacular but also makes errors and misses tackles, plus he’s only 19, on debut and has only played 16 games of first grade. He has to be managed well to make a positive impact.

Getting the middle rotation right is absolutely crucial for Queensland. Carrigan’s strength this year has been as a volume player, in that he does a lot total across a lot of minutes, rather than as an impact player off the bench.

On the other hand, Collins averages 48 mins per game and would be greatly improved if he was asked to do more with less – indeed this year, in games that he played shorter minutes, he has performed better.

It might suit Slater to use Collins as a burst player, giving starting props Josh Papalii and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui a rest, because his stats per minute played are actually quite good. Think of something similar to what Penrith do with Moses Leota or what Manly often do with Marty Taupau: 35 minutes of havoc either side of half time, then sit down.

Carrigan is perfect to pick up the slack, playing longer minutes and allowing several changes within the middle rotation. Cotter, too is quite an efficient player per minute defensively and could be left out there longer. Between them, the lock and edge can be covered and Nanai best utilised.

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When you have a talent disparity like Queensland have, interchanges are often where it goes south. Slater has to be on the ball.

Work out what they want to do with Ben Hunt

There’s been a lot of talk – not pointing fingers, but from people who don’t know how stats work – about Ben Hunt and his propensity to miss tackles.

He is your clubhouse leader in missed tackles for the whole NRL, but that is likely to have little to no carryover into Origin, where he will play a totally different position and likely make very few important missed tackles, because he will have blokes around him more ready to tackle than as a halfback.

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Missed tackles are a dangerous stat, because they are obviously a bad thing, but also have no correlation with winning or losing, or indeed, scoring or not scoring points: the Roosters, Eels, Panthers and Cowboys are all in the top 8 for missed tackles, for example.

For what it’s worth, Martin also misses more tackles per game than Hunt does, which questions the ability of whoever wrote that piece to even read a spreadsheet.

What might actually be interesting in terms of where Hunt features in Origin is how and when he touches the ball.

Hunt is second in the league for possessions by someone not playing hooker – obviously, being dummy half means hookers feature prominently, and are thus usually discounted from discussions – and last year managed 105 possessions in the only 80-minute performance that he got a 9.

That was also the only game that Queensland won, and a game in which Hunt was named man of the match. That night, he touched the ball twice as much as the next most, Cameron Munster, and as much as Munster and Daly Cherry-Evans combined, but of his 105 touches, only ran four times.

This is a crucial element for Queensland to consider. In 2022, teams rarely lead from the 9 and instead use their 7 as the primary tempo-setter, but in that game, it was clear the Hunt was the driving force in where the team went.

If, as one might infer from the team selection, Queensland are playing for a tight, low-scoring game, then Ben Hunt is probably the most important player on the field for them.

He presents a totally different profile of hooker to Harry Grant, much more inclined to dish and direct than to run and challenge the A and B defenders. With Hunt, it frees up Munster to run and create chaos, and for DCE to kick and control.

Grant runs seven times a game, twice more than Hunt manages playing at halfback, and thrives on catching the markers around the ruck. I’m not sure that the undeniably superb dummy half running of Grant is what the Maroons need on Wednesday night.

Obviously, I don’t know what Slater plans to do, but given that NSW have two brand new centres and Queensland as well as a high touch percentage fullback in Kalyn Ponga, I’d be going for the guy who can move the ball laterally off the back of a quick ruck and get my elusive fullback running at Kotoni Staggs and Jack Wighton.

That does call into question picking Grant at all, given that he has been sick, because either you’re running the attack through Hunt (as the Dragons do) or you’re spelling two hookers with each other and alternating strategies between steady hand and spark plug.

Were I picking the team, I might have told Grant to rest and recuperate from his illness for Game 1, the away game in cold Sydney, and picked another forward to double down on the ‘keep it tight’ plan – especially given the issues listed above vis a vis middle rotations.

Then again, not picking arguably the game’s best hooker in Grant would be a huge call for the first game of Slater’s reign, as would not picking (or using as a 14) the player who was perhaps best for Queensland last year, and who has been in excellent form.

Horses for courses appears to be something that NSW think about – and we’re getting to the wingers in a minute – but not Queensland.

Ben Hunt scores a try

Ben Hunt scores for the Maroons against the Blues. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Stop Yeo – and hide their biggest weakness

OK, so the wingers. This has been the big talking point, and more because NSW have picked around who Queensland have picked than anything that the Maroons have done themselves.

You could – and I would – make the argument the Maroons have picked the lesser two of the four wingers that they could have gone for, with longer arguments in favour of Corey Oates and Murray Taulagi than Xavier Coates and Selwyn Cobbo, but seing as those are the names on the team sheet, that’s what we have to work with.

The wingers are essential for the way Queensland can win this game, and for exactly the reasons that you think.

The Maroons have a clear height advantage, and one of the best players in kicking to that advantage in Cherry-Evans, so it makes all the sense in the world to play to where they are strong.

If the Maroons can win the middle, if they can force the grind in their favour, and if they can get up the right end of the park, then they can enact a plan that NSW will find it very, very hard to stop.

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Everyone knows that, so let’s move onto the next bit. Queensland have a huge defensive weakness out wide that they need to hide as much as possible. They can do that by playing like it’s 2010, with a conservative style, a commitment to line speed and inducing their sort of game.

Last year, under the madcap rules of 2021 football, they were blown away in the outside backs by Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell, as well as a rules interpretation that heavily advantaged swift movement to the sides.

Dane Gagai and Valentine Holmes were crucified by two strong, elusive ball runners who got good ball early. If NSW get any sort of roll on, this will happen again.

Gagai, Coates and Cherry-Evans are among the worst in the NRL for line break causes – including all the guys nowhere near Origin – and the Maroons simply cannot allow Wighton, Staggs and Luai to get any sort of good ball.

The outside backs need to commit to a fast line speed and then keep it up for 80 minutes, continually forcing the Blues back inside towards the likes of Cotter, Kaufusi and Capewell, who can and will tackle for days.

By doing that, they can also negate the playmaking influence of Isaah Yeo, because he operates by taking the ball in, interesting the inside D, then shifting from inside to outside.

That works when he has space to shift into, but doesn’t work when the outside men are swift enough to pressure Luai, in particular, before he gets the ball.

Yeo works at about a 1:2 ratio of run to pass, but in games where Penrith have struggled in attack, that has been closer to 1:1 – for example, the Cowboys managed this for a significant period of the second half against the Panthers recently, but were unable to maintain it and eventually the points came late on.

The defensive line has to work from the outside in – think the traditional umbrella defence – and keep it up, because if it turns the other way, Queensland are in big, big trouble.

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