For 34 players representing City and Country in Coffs Harbour this weekend, this is no ‘filler’ match on the Australian rugby league schedule. For those who take the field, City-Country is an honour – a privilege to represent their place of origin and an opportunity to press claims for a NSW Origin jersey.
While the match’s relevance remains queried in some quarters, there’s no questioning the commitment and enthusiasm these teams will bring to the paddock. Featuring six players who made their NRL debuts in 2012 – yes, just last year – this game is arguably their biggest test to date. Will they springboard from this level to even bigger things?
The major battle – apart from that on the scoreboard – will be for Blues positions. With just eight NSW representatives named in the Kangaroos squad for Friday night’s Test with the Kiwis, there are seemingly as many as nine ‘positions vacant’ in the Blues’ line-up.
Who will step up, take their opportunity and help lead their region of origin to victory? It’s bound to make for fascinating viewing.
Watch Out Country: Following the withdrawal of Robbie Farah, Jarryd Hayne, Aaron Woods, Chris Lawrence and Josh Reynolds from the City side, there’s an opportunity for the gold-and-blues to fly under the radar this week.
Little is expected from most of their inexperienced and surprise replacements, including Tigers rookies James Tedesco and Curtis Sironen, and Manly utility Tom Symonds – a reason why the boys from the bush are firm favourites. But maybe, just maybe, they could shock everyone and spring an upset here.
Anyone who suggests their squad is inexperienced is off the mark – City boast a total of 1497 games’ NRL experience, compared with Country’s total of 1387.
Watch Out City: Country have as many as nine realistic Origin candidates desperate to prove their Blues credentials in this clash – at least a couple more than their cousins from the city.
Players such as Akuila Uate, James Maloney, Willie Mason, Trent Merrin, Ryan James and Tariq Sims will be doing all they can to convince NSW coach Laurie Daley of their ability to make the step up to the NSW team – and their performance in this clash will have a big bearing on the likelihood of their selection.
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Uate, in particular, has a point to prove after missing Origin III, 2012 and selection in Friday night’s Test against New Zealand. The flying winger has started 2013 in fine form, scoring seven tries, making five line-breaks and running for a total of 817 metres in just six matches.
Plays To Watch: Country boys James Maloney, Josh McCrone and Sam Williams upping the ante and doing all they can to keep the match running at breakneck pace; Tim Grant and Tony Williams charging full speed ahead into Country’s defensive brick wall – they’ll need to if they’re going to reclaim their NSW jerseys; James Maloney kicking long and early in the attempt to tire City’s big forward pack; Michael Jennings sniffing for an opportunity – and an offload – around ball-playing forwards Williams, Ryan Hoffman, Feleti Mateo, Andrew Fifita and Wade Graham.
Key Match-Up: They mightn’t necessarily line up opposite each other, but the battle between centres Jamal Idris and Michael Jennings will be fascinating.
Idris burst onto the Origin scene in 2010 but injury and poor form have restricted him to just one game in the Blues jersey.
Jennings, meanwhile remained in favour with NSW selectors last season… even when he was dropped at club level! Jennings has looked more determined and had a greater involvement since his move to the Roosters – as reflected in this season’s stats that show he’s already made seven line-breaks, three line-break assists and almost 700 metres in six matches.
Whoever delivers an outstanding performance will give their team a decisive boost; and in Idris’ case, a game-turning effort will push his name higher up the list of candidates for Laurie Daley’s Blues line-up.
Where It Will Be Won: Up the guts. Most games are decided in the middle of the park, and this one is certainly no different with both teams likely to claim their big forwards as their main strength. Who can assert their dominance in this one?
The battle of the big boys – worth the price of admission alone – pits the likes of Country boys Willie Mason, Aiden Tolman, Trent Merrin, Ryan James and Tariq Sims against City’s Tim Grant, Tim Mannah, Tony Williams, Ryan Hoffman, Feleti Mateo and Andrew Fifita. This is where Blues jerseys will be won or lost.
The History: Since 2001, when the City-Country Origin clash returned to the NRL, the boys from the big smoke have dominated, winning seven of the 12 meetings.
Last Time They Met: It was the City boys who triumphed 24-22, but the red-hot form of Country five-eighth Todd Carney was the talking point coming out of last year’s clash at Mudgee.
The entertaining football feast was a tale of two halves as City raced to a 24-6 lead at oranges, courtesy of some strong play from halfback Mitchell Pearce, but in the second stanza Carney – and his Country teammates – came charging back.
City’s two-point victory was built on greater possession (54 per cent to 46 per cent) as well as a lower error count (nine compared with Country’s 11).
Individually, Country boys Blake Ferguson (188 metres), Luke Douglas (123 metres) and Greg Bird (130 metres) all made significant inroads. City, too, stretched their opponents through the middle with Aaron Woods (145 metres), Ryan Hoffman (124 metres) and Bryce Gibbs (104 metres) all giving their playmakers creative space.
Perhaps the most telling stat, though, was the penalty count, with Country failing to capitalise on their 11-5 advantage. In the end, the two-point difference came through goal-kicking, with Steve Turner kicking four from four for City and Carney missing one in a three-from-four contribution.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm.
The Way We See It: The Country boys look to have too much experience, impetus and strike-power in this match – particularly across the ‘spine’ of fullback, five-eighth, halfback and hooker. If City’s game plan focuses around their forwards, they’re in with a chance… but a slight one’s all we’re giving them. Country by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.