Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Blues v Maroons
It’s on again! Thirty-three years after that fateful night at Lang Park in 1980, NSW and Queensland renew their annual rivalry in what could well be the most-anticipated State of Origin series of all time. Fair enough – that moniker is bandied about pretty much every year – but 2013 has good reason to lay claim to the title given last year’s series was undoubtedly one of the greatest we’ve ever witnessed.
Queensland may well be riding high on the back of seven consecutive series wins but they came within a whisker (and perhaps a questionable refereeing decision or two) last year of seeing that record end at six.
Heading into the decider locked at one game apiece, the Blues and Maroons played out an Origin classic with Queensland leading 20-14 inside the final 10 minutes before Josh Morris leapt over the top of Darius Boyd to haul in a Robbie Farah kick and score in the corner. Todd Carney’s sideline conversion made it 20-all with nine minutes remaining and the Blues were looking good to steal a memorable win, but Maroons halfback Cooper Cronk had other ideas as he launched a stunning 40-metre field-goal to secure the series 21-20.
Nevertheless, while NSW didn’t get the victory they so desperately wanted, they did prove to themselves that they are no longer outclassed by this wonderful Queensland side. In particular, the Blues felt aggrieved at two key decisions that could have swayed the series their way – the first a try awarded to Greg Inglis late in Game One from what appeared to be a knock-on; the second a try awarded to Justin Hodges just before half-time in the decider that could reasonably have been pulled back for obstruction.
Which brings us back to 2013 and a series both sides know is well and truly there for the taking.
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For Queensland, they will be banking on the stability of their brilliant spine to lead them to an eighth straight series win. Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have long worked wonders together for both Queensland and Australia and that continuity is the Maroons’ greatest strength.
NSW will look to their big forwards to dominate Queensland after James Tamou, Greg Bird, Anthony Watmough and captain Paul Gallen enjoyed long periods of dominance 12 months ago.
The biggest question for the Blues will be how their new-look spine operates together. Halfback Mitchell Pearce and hooker Robbie Farah return after impressing last year but James Maloney and Jarryd Hayne at five-eighth and fullback respectively are new (or in Hayne’s case, new to the position). Hayne’s move from the wing to fullback was a forced one given the injury to Brett Stewart although he is a proven performer at this level and has performed well at club level despite trying to carry an inexperienced Parramatta side.
Maloney’s selection is more interesting. His partnership with Pearce at the Roosters this season has been brilliant and selectors have deemed that his presence not only provides another game-breaking option but eases the burden on Pearce alongside him. Still, incumbent Todd Carney can consider himself unlucky after he stepped up to the mark last year and his form for Cronulla over the past month has also been very good.
Needless to say, there is plenty to look forward to and although Queensland deserve to again had in as slight favourites given their tremendous track record, the Blues have two games in Sydney this year and are as close as ever to ending this painful hoodoo.
Watch Out Blues: The Greg Inglis factor looms large on the minds of every man that coaches against him and rest assured Laurie Daley will have spent hours staring at his name on the Queensland team sheet.
Inglis’ form in the No.1 jersey for Souths this season has been so good that there was serious discussion about the possibility of him replacing Billy Slater as Maroons fullback – a proposition that would have been deemed laughable not so long ago. Inglis has averaged 173 metres, scored 11 tries and made 65 tackle-breaks this season at the back but as NSW knows all too well he has been just as effective in the centres for Queensland in the past.
Notably Inglis is State of Origin’s all-time leading try scorer – with 14 tries from 18 appearances.
Watch Out Maroons: If the NSW big men match their performances at club level on Wednesday night when it comes to eating up the metres then Queensland could well find themselves in some trouble.
First and foremost is Blues captain Paul Gallen who has a habit of notching some phenomenal stats. For the Sharks this season he is averaging 166 metres per game but he has historically stepped that up for Origin, having run for a whopping 230 metres in Game One last year.
Fellow prop James Tamou is averaging a very respectable 146 metres this season while newcomer Andrew Fifita could prove to be a game-changer. The Cronulla forward has been relentless over the past month, running for 210, 204, 189 and 251 metres in his past four outings.
Plays To Watch: Queensland love shifting the ball quickly to the left whenever they are attacking the NSW line. Be it from a quick play-the-ball or an offload, they enjoyed plenty of success on that edge last year with Darius Boyd scoring two tries in Game One and another in Game Three in very similar circumstances. The Greg Inglis factor plays a big role in their love of going left, but in-particular watch for Johnathan Thurston to throw a cut-out ball past Inglis to an unmarked Boyd on the outside.
It will be interesting to see whether new Blues five-eighth James Maloney adopts similar plays to those that have served him well at the Roosters this season. A favourite is to throw a short-ball to his lead runner on the left edge in the hope that the defence is drifting out to the dangerous Michael Jennings on the outside. At the Roosters, that runner is usually Mitch Aubusson but the one constant for NSW is that Jennings will still be there on his outside. Will Jennings look to his NSW second-rower Ryan Hoffman or will he favour Jennings out wide?
Key Match-Up: Cameron Smith v Robbie Farah. Arguably the greatest dummy-half of all time will again be a key member of the Queensland squad this year. Smith is a master at controlling the ruck and his efforts have given the Maroons a huge edge over the years. But in Farah he faces one man that can match him for skill. Farah was superb last series – his short-kicking game and crisp service at the forefront of the NSW surge.
Where It Will Be Won: Origin is a different beast to any other game of rugby league. Will it be won in the forwards? Sure, they’ll be important. What about the halves? Their input is critical. Out wide? There is plenty of talent there. But Origin is about the little things – repeat efforts, denying your opponent field position and taking your chances when they come. These are what will make or break in 2013 in what shapes as a thrilling State of Origin series.
The History: Played 94; Maroons 49, Blues 43, drawn 2. Queensland have edged ahead during their seven-year winning streak. NSW have dominated at ANZ Stadium, however, with 13 wins to Queensland’s five. The two sides played out an 18-all draw at the venue in 2002.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Steve Carrall; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 8pm.
The Way We See It: Who can pick this one? Queensland will head into the series as favourites on the back of their seven series wins but it’s been a while since the Blues have had two games at ANZ Stadium and they will be keen to get the series off to a good start in front of their home fans. Both sides have picked quality squads and there really is nothing between them. Let’s make things interesting – NSW by two points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats