Maroons v Blues
If the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops the nation, State of Origin is certainly the game that stops the nation. Nevertheless, in all the years Origin has dominated the mid-season sporting landscape, has there ever been a more eventful few weeks between games than what we’ve witnessed since the series opener on June 5?
It all began with that punch landed by Paul Gallen on Nate Myles which had the rugby league world talking and has quickly led to swift and harsh action being taken from now onwards on anyone that decides to use their fists in the future.
Injuries to Blues duo Jarryd Hayne and Robbie Farah had coach Laurie Daley scratching around for replacements while the pair raced the clock to be fit for Game Two. Farah succeeded, Hayne didn’t.
NSW prop James Tamou then found himself banned from the return clash after being caught drink-driving in Townsville, while the redemption of Hayne’s replacement Josh Dugan quickly lost its lustre after he and Blake Ferguson decided to celebrate at a Cronulla bar the night before the Blues went into camp.
Ferguson’s subsequent actions made him the second man banned from taking part at Suncorp. So much for the perfect preparation they enjoyed before taking a 1-0 series lead just a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, in Queensland, all the discussion has centred around whether or not the Maroons would stay loyal to the 17 that took the park in Sydney after they were largely dominated by the big NSW pack.
In that respect, they have sprung somewhat of a surprise for Game Two with prop David Shillington and back-rower Ashley Harrison dumped for rookies Josh Papalii and Daly Cherry-Evans. If anything, that makes them even smaller for this game, with Broncos prop Ben Hannant a shock omission after coming through last Monday’s NRL return unscathed.
That’s not to suggest the two newcomers won’t get the job done. Queensland coach Mal Meninga has been weighing up the perfect time to blood Cherry-Evans for more than 12 months now and believes the time has come, while Papalii has been exceptional for Canberra in 2013 and will provide plenty of aggressive impact.
For the Blues, Dugan has survived the scrapheap after his indiscretion and it will be interesting to see how he performs in his first Origin game since 2011 after attracting praise at St George Illawarra over the past month.
Wests Tigers prop Aaron Woods makes his debut up front with good judges predicting a long and successful career in the sky blue jersey, while after all the negative publicity the Blues have endured over the past fortnight, the call-up of Nathan Merritt to replace Ferguson is the feel-good story of the contest. Merritt has long been on the cusp of an Origin debut and finally gets his chance when it looked like the opportunity had passed him by.
That’s the great thing about Origin. Be it Merritt’s big day, Paul Gallen’s newfound status as Queensland Enemy No.1, the Maroons’ search for answers or even the Dugan-Ferguson reunion that never was, you can always count on this game to make headlines. It’s not just about the game, it’s also about the countless subplots that come with it. And for NSW, the most important of those is the opportunity to end Queensland’s seven-year dominance. They’ve taken the first step but can they get the job done in front of a hostile Queensland crowd? Either way, another chapter in the thrilling history of Origin is about to be written.
Watch Out Maroons: Is Queensland’s forward pack big enough to cope with the hungry Blues’ big men? It’s notable that the Maroons didn’t have a single specialist prop coming off the bench for Game One and the difference told early as NSW dominated to race to a 14-0 half-time lead. Both teams made exactly 167 hit-ups each in the series opener and split possession at 50 per cent but the Blues ran for 139 metres more across the 80 minutes. Queensland has actually downsized for the return clash with Josh Papalii (110kg) and Daly Cherry-Evans (84kg) replacing David Shillington (114kg) and Ashley Harrison (97kg). Will it be enough?
Watch Out Blues: It’s hard to believe that there were genuine calls for Greg Inglis to replace Billy Slater in the No.1 jersey before Game One of this year’s series given Slater’s performance in a losing side. While Inglis was relatively quiet, Slater was involved in everything and finished with a game-high 204 metres to go with two offloads and three tackle-breaks. He again presents as the main danger to the NSW defensive line this time around.
Plays To Watch: Okay, so Inglis didn’t have his best game in Sydney but the huge fend he put on Josh Morris on his way to putting Darius Boyd over for Queensland’s only try serves as a reminder to what he is capable of. The fact of the matter is that the Maroons love shifting the ball left to Inglis, where they have enjoyed tremendous success over the years. The Blues must be wary when Thurston receives the ball on that left edge, where he is a master at summing up the situation and either giving Inglis some room to move or catching the opposition winger rushing and in and throwing a cut-out to Darius Boyd instead.
For the most part, though, watch for Queensland to turn the ball back inside with monotonous regularity. While they may boast a much smaller team, the benefit of that is the ability to tire the big NSW forwards out which will open up opportunities for the likes of Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Daly Cherry-Evans late in each half.
Key Match-Up: Billy Slater v Josh Dugan. This was probably the heavyweight clash of the series opener with both Slater and Blues custodian Jarryd Hayne putting in outstanding performances. We expect more of the same from Slater, but what of Dugan in Hayne’s absence? Dugan has huge shoes to fill but NSW desperately needs him to step up to the plate if they are to wrap up the series now and avoid a pressure-filled decider. All eyes will be on the Blues No.1 to see how he responds to the events of the past week.
Where It Will Be Won: Through the middle where contrasting tactics will look to gain the upper hand. The Blues will be all out power and trying to steam their way over the top of the Maroons. Conversely, Queensland will need to hold strong against the blue tidal wave but provided they stand tall they have the opportunity to slice holes in the opposition defensive line with their little men as the NSW forwards tire.
The History: Played 95; Maroons 49, Blues 44, drawn 2. The Blues have won just two of nine games at Suncorp since Queensland’s streak began in 2006 and both of those wins came in dead rubbers. The last time NSW won a live game in Brisbane was in the 2005 decider.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Steve Carrall; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 8pm.
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The Way We See It: This is a big ask for the Blues, even before the disastrous few weeks they’ve had off the field. Missing Jarryd Hayne through injury and James Tamou and Blake Ferguson through suspension, NSW have plenty of ground to cover minus so many of their big guns and there is no harder proving ground than the hallowed turf of Suncorp Stadium. Queensland was below their best in Game One but all evidence points towards the series being squared 1-1. Maroons by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats