Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
NSW v Queensland
Could this be the biggest State of Origin game ever? Six weeks after the 2013 series kicked off at this very same venue, NSW and Queensland are back in what will surely be the most-anticipated series decider of all time.
For the Blues, this also looms as the most significant game in their history: having come so close to ending Queensland’s run the past two years it would be nothing short of devastating if they failed to get the job done yet again.
For the Maroons, they will be relishing the chance to break NSW hearts once more and extend their run of consecutive series wins to eight. Alas, after starting so well in Sydney, the pressure is right back on the Blues when they run back out onto ANZ Stadium next Wednesday night.
It all started so well for NSW. While Queensland stumbled along in the lead-up to Game One with a number of off-field troubles distracting them from the task at hand, a confident Blues outfit completely overwhelmed them during the opening 40 minutes of the series to take the first game and have fans dreaming of the glory days.
But that all changed almost immediately afterwards. Two players – James Tamou and Blake Ferguson – were ruled out of the return clash through suspension. A third, fullback Jarryd Hayne, was injured.
And what the Maroons did to them at Suncorp Stadium can only be described as an ambush. By the time 20 minutes had gone by the match was all but over and any chance NSW had of putting the Maroons to the test while leading the series was gone.
So, we head back to Sydney for a decider and much like that second game there have been some major setbacks for the Blues. Hayne was originally named in the side but ruled out almost immediately with his hamstring injury, while they have since suffered a huge blow with captain Paul Gallen succumbing to the foot injury that has plagued him for the past fortnight. He will be replaced by impressive young prop Aaron Woods, but they can’t replace his experience. Similarly, the Blues will now be sweating on Greg Bird to be cleared to play given that, behind Gallen and Hayne, he is their next most experienced player.
Still, the fact that NSW get to play a decider on home soil for the first time since 2008 is a significant advantage and one that won’t be lost on the Queenslanders, who have won just five of 20 games at ANZ Stadium.
The Blues’ big advantage is their sizeable forward pack, which comfortably dwarfs Queensland’s and has the potential to run over the top of them should they play to their potential on Wednesday night. The return of Tamou is a huge plus on that front and at least they don’t lose any size with Woods coming into the squad alongside him.
They showed in Game One that dominating up front can really throw Queensland’s playmakers off their game, but conversely a complete reversal by the Maroons forwards in Game Two simply opened the door for their lethal backline to run amok.
Who will prevail? Will we see a changing of the guard, or will the Maroons machine keep rolling on? Either way, a new chapter is about to be written in the annals of Origin – and it’s a moment that can’t be missed.
Hayne’s ongoing hamstring injury saw him officially ruled out last Monday with Newcastle’s James McManus called up after a strong start to the season and his four-try effort against the Gold Coast two weeks ago.
Queensland have named the same 17 that prevailed in Game Two, with Jacob Lillyman and Melbourne centre Will Chambers the 18th and 19th men.
Watch Out Blues: Queensland will be hoping they have found another game-breaker in Raiders back-rower Josh Papalii. The 21-year-old played only 11 minutes on his debut in Game Two but his form for Canberra this season has been superb. A powerful runner of the football, he has averaged 113 metres per game in 2013 with 46 tackle-breaks. Only two other forwards in the NRL – George Burgess and Andrew Fifita – have more tackle-breaks to their name. Papalii showed all his talents against North Queensland last weekend when he brushed aside the tackle of Maroons teammate Johnathan Thurston and stepped inside the fullback to score a brilliant solo try.
Watch Out Maroons: The Blues might be missing Game One star Jarryd Hayne but Queensland will need to be careful not to underestimate his replacement Josh Dugan. After a troubled start to the season that saw him sacked from Canberra, Dugan has since reinvigorated himself at St George Illawarra with a series of impressive performances. At his best, Dugan is a real game-breaker with his ability to bump off defenders and create havoc on kick returns. Most notable though was his Game Two performance. NSW were dominated from start to finish by a fired-up Queensland side but Dugan still managed 109 metres and six tackle-breaks to be win the Blues’ Players’ Player award.
Plays To Watch: We spoke about the Johnathan Thurston long-ball to the left in our Game One preview and although the Blues shut him down in that clash, it was the play that hurt NSW most when the two sides travelled up to Suncorp Stadium for the return encounter. Thurston’s right-to-left pass is lethal and he punished rookie Blues winger Nathan Merritt on multiple occasions for rushing in on centre Greg Inglis.
Thurston threw a sensational ball after double-pumping to send Darius Boyd over and make it 14-0 midway through the first half, then an even better one that cut out two players to gift Boyd his second early in the second half.
Watch for NSW hooker Robbie Farah’s close-range grubbers into the in-goal. Farah is a master at kicking through for his speed men to score and caught the Maroons out in this exact fashion in Game Two last year when Brett Stewart raced through to score.
Key Match-Up: Michael Jennings v Justin Hodges. This was the most intriguing battle of the series opener in a clash that NSW largely dominated. Blues fans will long remember Jennings’ brilliant try shortly before halftime after scooping up a loose ball 20 metres out, but Hodges was similarly impressive for Queensland and was easily the most dangerous player in a well-beaten side.
Where It Will Be Won: In the first 20 minutes. This series has already shown us that whoever starts fastest goes on with the job. In Game One NSW wasted no time getting down to business – driving forward from the opening whistle, scoring a try after just five minutes and eventually taking a commanding 14-0 lead into the break. In Game Two it was Queensland that shot out of the blocks to have the Blues beaten almost immediately. They also led 14-0 at halftime and didn’t let up in the second half. Both coaches will be well aware that it’s much easier to play Origin from in front so expect fireworks during the opening exchanges.
The History: Played 96; Maroons 50, Blues 44, drawn 2. Queensland have won just five of 20 games at ANZ Stadium and haven’t tasted success there since 2010. However, NSW haven’t won a Game Three decider since 2005. The two sides have played four deciders since then with the Maroons prevailing every time.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Grant & Steve Carrall; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Henry Perenara.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to State of Origin III on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 8pm.
The Way We See It: It’s D-Day for NSW, who must finally stop the rot this time around after having numerous opportunities in recent seasons. Finally enjoying home ground advantage, they will never have a better chance than this one but do they have what it takes to get the job done when it matters most? There isn’t a whole lot between these two sides these days but the Maroons have shown time and time again that they are a ‘big game’ team. Until the Blues prove they are too it’s hard to go against Mal Meninga and his men. Especially with Gallen sidelined. Maroons by four points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats