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Dumped from first grade by Penrith coach Ivan Cleary just a fortnight ago and again not named in their side for this week’s NRL clash with the Sea Eagles, Michael Jennings could well prove to be the key figure in tonight’s State of Origin clash in Melbourne with former Origin greats predicting he will have a huge say in the outcome of the series opener.
And they’re not alone, with statistics from last year’s series proving that the Blues were never more dangerous in attack than when they sent the ball to Jennings out wide.
Former Maroons prop Steve Price has labelled Jennings both NSW’s greatest defensive liability and biggest attacking threat, with the availability of ball on the Blues’ left edge potentially determining who travels to Sydney next month with the upper hand.
“With the players that they’ve got, [Queensland would] probably have to run at Michael Jennings and Todd Carney – you’d probably go down that side,” Price told NRL.com. “I’d be wanting to go that way mainly because Jennings can make some errors defensively with his reads.”
Ironically, it was the impact of Jennings that very nearly stole victory in Game One last year, with his scintillating try in the 70th minute giving NSW a 12-10 lead before Billy Slater stole it back late for Queensland.
In his only appearance of the series due to an ankle injury suffered in the lead-up to Game Two, Jennings topped the metre count (179), tackle-break count (11) and line-breaks count (three) in a devastating performance on the left-hand side. Notably, the Blues only made five line-breaks on that left edge all series – and just two on the right – with Price predicting a similar result if Queensland neglected to nullify his threat in 2012.
“He could be [the difference] and maybe last year it was because the Maroons targeted the right side and he didn’t have to make those big decisions,” Price said. “If you throw a bit of traffic at him – and I have seen this at Penrith – he has been renowned for not always making the best decisions. I suppose it depends on how much pressure Queensland put on him and how many players they run at him.
“I think he will play a big role in the way NSW approach the whole game. I expect them to try and play back through the middle to pull the Queensland guys in tighter. Then Todd Carney can use his speed to get across players and make players commit, so they can get Jennings one-on-one with his opposite number with some space. At that level he has shown that he can be very, very dangerous with some space.”
Former NSW playmaker and Panthers board member Greg Alexander agrees that Jennings could play a pivotal role but says much depends on how his inside men use him.
“He has got the ability to win the game but whether or not he can find enough space – that always seems to be the issue, getting Michael early-enough ball,” Alexander explained. “And he is the sort of player you don’t just want to go to on set plays. You want to go to him early and get him one-on-one with someone. That’s when he is at his most dangerous.
“He is up against [Justin] Hodges, so it’s possible that he could be the key. I’ve always been keen to see Michael used better at Penrith off the back of the quick play-the-ball – instead of taking that one more shot to make ground up the middle, I’ve always thought that was the best time to give him the ball. If the halves are aware of that and capitalise on a quick play-the-ball when Queensland are on the back foot, then swinging him the ball and giving him some room is the way to go.”
However, New South Wales’ best chance appears to be through the middle third of the field. Price pointed to Game Two of last year’s series, in which NSW captain Paul Gallen produced one of the finest individual performances of all time in leading his side to an 18-8 win, as a guideline as to where the Blues would attack Queensland tonight.
Notably, NSW worked the Maroons over through the middle that game, with 115 runs in the centre corridor (kick-returns and restarts excluded) compared with just 48 out wide.
“They (NSW) picked a pretty mobile pack so they’re going to try and do what they did in Game Two last year – maintain possession and field position and really move Queensland around,” Price said. “They will try and come back at us through the middle and pick up anyone who is lazy in there. They’ll try to get quick play-the-balls from, say, Luke Lewis coming through the middle when the ball is turned back inside.
“I really think they’re going to try and attack through the middle and then have strong shifts. Brett Stewart and Glenn Stewart – they’re really good at that at Manly. Glenn Stewart on that short side gets early ball and he’s got good speed and an offload and a pre-line pass. Then you’ve got Brett hanging around as well, with a Jennings outside of him – that’s what I see happening.”
While Price points to Carney as the main man to target in the halves, the Blues should remain wary of where Mitchell Pearce is standing in the defensive line, given that he was heavily targeted by Queensland’s big men last year. Pearce was forced to attempt 33 tackles in Game One (compared to just 16 by five-eighth Jamie Soward), 29 to nine in Game Two and 15 to 10 in Game Three. More importantly, he successfully completed 59 of those tackles but missed 15 and had three ineffective for an effective tackle percentage of just 76.6 per cent.
The Blues must also stay awake to the short-side play, which is a favourite of Maroons five-eighth Johnathan Thurston. Thurston’s club side, North Queensland, have used the short-side play more than any other side in 2012, heading that way on 183 occasions (by comparison, Sydney Roosters rank second with just 138) – and the Maroons also went the short side regularly in last year’s series with 38 plays to the Blues’ 19.
“It’s a strength of [Thurston’s] game – and why not play to your strengths?” observed Price. “He has got some pretty handy players inside and outside of him. When you’ve got a Billy Slater drifting out the back and Greg Inglis outside… that was his strength in the Test match as well. There were a couple of times we scored some tries just from pure speed and accuracy of the pass. Johno was involved with those as well as GI (Inglis), as well as Billy, as well as Cooper (Cronk).
“The thing about Johno is how he sets a game up. It’s a lot like Andrew Johns – I haven’t seen too many players that can do it. It will be pass, pass, pass, dummy and when you think you’ve got him, that’s when he pulls your pants down. You know when you’re doing analysis on him what he is going to do but you can’t stop it because he sets it up so well. Plus, at that level there is so much threat inside and outside, and Johno is so good at bringing those guys into the game.
“So that’s why I say play to your strengths. Go down the short side if you’ve got a guy that’s good at that – and Johno is very good at it.”
Keep an eye on Manly tyro Tony Williams making a huge impact for the Blues.
Much has been made of Williams’ selection given this will be his first game back from a seven-week suspension, but his presence fits in perfectly with NSW coach Ricky Stuart’s squad. Stuart has deliberately chosen a number of players with a proven ability to play big minutes – freeing the way for Williams to be used in short bursts as a genuine impact weapon.
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