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The set of seven key issues Blues must tackle to ensure Maguire’s revamp isn't another Origin false dawn

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28th May, 2024
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Now that the hype, hoopla and hullabaloo over Origin team selections has subsided, the real hard work begins for Michael Maguire. 

With just over a week to bring players old and new into NSW camp from 10 clubs to form a fully functioning unit that can end the Maroons’ recent dominance, it’s the toughest coaching gig in rugby league. 

Well, perhaps second toughest when you look at the mess that Benji Marshall is trying to clean up in his rookie season at Wests Tigers. 

Billy Slater and his Queensland cohort are keeping an eye on the Blues’ revamp south of the border but focusing on ensuring they are preparing as diligently as possible, an art they have almost perfected after decades of being labelled the underdog but winning much more often than not. 

Maguire has the team that he wants from the best available talent but not the one he was hoping to have before Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic, Cameron Murray and perhaps Bradman Best succumbed to injury. 

It has been almost two decades since NSW last dominated Origin when they won three straight series under Phil Gould before Queensland’s golden eight-year run under Mal Meninga. 

Even when the Blues looked they were getting the upper hand in Brad Fittler’s first two years at the helm as the Maroons’ crop of future Immortals and long-term stars faded into retirement, a pandemic struck and Wayne Bennett returned for an end-of-season hit-and run mission. 

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Now Maguire is faced with the prospect of rejuvenating the Blues after Fittler’s acrimonious exit on the back of a lopsided 2023 series. 

To halt the Maroons’ momentum, here is the set of seven key issues the Blues need to tackle heading into the series opener next Wednesday at Accor Stadium. 

A rookie captain 

Jake Trbojevic is captain of any good blokes XIII you want to toss up but he has little experience at NRL level and none in the representative arena. 

He has averaged 56 minutes per game since being used solely as a prop in the past three series so the Blues will need to find another leader when he is having a breather. 

The next-best option is Isaah Yeo but it would be odd to have a vice-captain on the bench although it wouldn’t be as bad as when the Blues did try having Kurt Gidley as co-captain despite being on the interchange in 2010. 

Nathan Cleary and Cameron Murray were likely of Trbojevic to succeed James Tedesco as NSW skipper. They are longer-term options but Maguire couldn’t hand it to one of them even if they are back later in the series.

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CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 28: Nicholas Hynes of the Sharks runs the ball during the round eight NRL match between Canberra Raiders and Cronulla Sharks at GIO Stadium, on April 28, 2024, in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Nicho Hynes. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Halves have never played together 

Nicho Hynes has all of 11 minutes at Origin level under his belt and Jarome Luai lost the only match he played without Nathan Cleary as the chief playmaker. 

Luai has shown this year at Penrith that he can step up to be the main playmaker but there’s a difference between doing that as part of the Panthers juggernaut in club footy and when you’re up against the Maroons in the cauldron of Origin where anything more than a split-second decision is a rarity.

Hynes and Luai have never played together as halves and although the five-eighth has a long-standing relationship with fullback Dylan Edwards, the hooker in Reece Robson is another relatively new piece of the NSW puzzle. 

The player who could shoulder some extra playmaking load is Isaah Yeo but he has surprisingly been named on the bench with a couple of toilers in Trbojevic and Cameron McInnes selected ahead of him in the middle forward rotation.

Queensland have had to make a spinal adjustment with Tom Dearden replacing Cameron Munster but the repetitions they have together with Ben Hunt, Daly Cherry-Evans, Harry Grant and Reece Walsh is a major advantage.

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Six debutants 

The Blues have six newbies next Wednesday night as well as a second-gamer in Hynes, and Robson and Hudson Young playing their third Origin. 

Experience is not the be-all and end-all, as we’ve seen a couple of times recently when Brad Fittler has successfully brought in a bunch of new Blues at once, but it certainly helps

The NSW spine has 11 Origins, the Queensland quartet have 42.

Spencer Leniu is the kind of debutant who could go to one extreme or the other – he could turn the match in the Blues’ favour with sudden impact off the bench or overplay his hand by trying to make his mark and give away possession or penalties, Tevita Pangai style in the corresponding match last year.

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Suaalii will be centre of Maroons’ attention

Joseph Suaalii is still finding his feet as a top-level centre and is arguably better suited to the wing where his leaping ability and strong carries from the backfield are more useful. 

Suaalii has been part of 10 try causes at the Roosters in 12 matches this year and conceded 11 line breaks, which is the worst record of the other specialist Origin centres selected – Stephen Crichton (10 and 9) and Valentine Holmes (7 and 6). 

He has come up with five try assists to edge out Holmes (four) and Crichton (three) in that category. 

For those playing Origin bingo at home, it is a matter of time before some dinosaur player from the past says it’s a “disgrace” that Suaalii has been picked even though he’s going to play rugby next year. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 28: (L-R) Cameron McInnes, Haumole Olakau'atu, Zac Lomax, Spencer Leniu, Dylan Edwards and Joseph-Aukuso Suaalii of the Blues pose during a New South Wales Blues State of Origin media opportunity at NSWRL Centre of Excellence on May 28, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Blues debutants Cameron McInnes, Haumole Olakau’atu, Zac Lomax, Spencer Leniu, Dylan Edwards and Joseph Suaalii. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Creativity out of dummy-half

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Robson is as solid as a rock in defence but not renowned for his attacking prowess. 

He has actually conjured up six line break assists for the Cowboys this season to be the equal leader in that stat alongside Canterbury’s Reed Mahoney. 

If he gets injured or needs a breather, an even more defensive-focused option in Cameron McInnes will pick up the slack. 

Robson is getting better on the offensive end but his role next Wednesday will be to spiral passes left or right to wherever Luai or Hynes, in concert with Edwards, have stationed themselves for an attacking raid.

Hunt, the NRL’s line break assist king this year, has been dynamic for Queensland at dummy-half while Grant’s role will be to take advantage of tiring defenders when he likely comes on late in the first half.

Injury cover out wide

As it stands, the Blues have four forwards on the bench – they have been caught short in recent series when injuries have struck out wide, most notably in the first two games last year when Hynes down the stretch of game one and Damien Cook for nearly all of Origin II had to deputise for Tom Trbojevic.

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As far as speedy forwards go, Young is a decent option to throw out into the centres for a reshuffle if needed but he has a grand total of zero NRL matches in the position. 

Even if a back-rower has decent pace, defending out of position in between the winger and the half can be a bamboozling experience with Brisbane’s Brendan Piakura and Dragons veteran Matt Eisenhuth last week against Canterbury notable examples this year of forwards being exposed when filling in out wide.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 16: NSW Blues head coach Michael Maguire poses for a photograph during the 2024 State of Origin Series Launch at Melbourne Cricket Ground on April 16, 2024 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

NSW Blues coach Michael Maguire. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Maguire’s spotty recent record

And finally, the coach himself needs to show he can adapt to Origin.

He is the first Blues coach with a hefty NRL resume since his old Raiders teammates Craig Bellamy and Ricky Stuart failed to break Queensland’s dynasty from 2008-12. 

Maguire is coming off the high of guiding New Zealand to a thumping 30-0 win over Australia in last November’s Pacific Championships final but prior to that, his Wests Tigers stint was a disaster after his time at the Rabbitohs ended poorly following the premiership success a decade ago.

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His fire and brimstone approach quickly wore thin at Wests and in short doses, it could work on the Blues, although elite players are less inclined to arc up simply from a pre-game or half-time rev-up. 

Slater was tactically superior to Fittler over the past two years and Maguire needs to ensure the Blues are not only motivated but judicious with their methods in attack and defence to prove this is not another false dawn rising over NSW.

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