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State of Origin Game One preview

New South Wales v Queensland
Etihad Stadium, Melbourne
Wednesday 8.10pm

The preparation and the posturing are over: it’s time to see whether the Maroons will take their first steps towards extending their six-year dynasty, or whether the Blues will open the shutters on a new dawn in State of Origin.

Committed and passionate Queensland may have an overwhelming record since 2005 but New South Wales players and fans will take great heart from the statistic that shows the Blues have lost a second half just once in their past six encounters in the Origin cauldron – including winning the past four straight and drawing the second 40 in Game One, 2010.

But on the flip side of the coin that only goes to show how dominant Queensland have been from the outset.

New South Wales will be keen for the lion’s share of applause from the sell-out crowd at Etihad Stadium, with powerbrokers hoping the shift away from ANZ Stadium for the series opener doesn’t hand Queensland an advantage even before the time-on whistle blows.

But there’s been drama in their lead-up, with skipper Paul Gallen only getting the green light to take his place after training strongly on Sunday, having shown no signs of the thigh muscle injury that hampered his preparation last week.

The Blues have gambled on a few fronts with their selections, placing huge faith in Manly’s Tony Williams who hasn’t played in two months after being suspended in Round 3. While that is an indication of how highly Williams is valued as an impact player, other selections have been forced by injuries to key candidates: with Danny Buderus and Kurt Gidley unavailable, coach Ricky Stuart has thrown hooker Robbie Farah – who hasn’t appeared on this stage since 2009 – a representative lifeline while also blooding Manly utility Jamie Buhrer.

Just eight Blues players remain from the 17 that lost 34-24 in Game Three last July. Brett Stewart returns in the No.1, with Jarryd Hayne shifting from the centres to oust Brett Morris on the left wing. Josh Morris will suit up at right centre following the retirement of Mark Gasnier, with Todd Carney reuniting with former Roosters teammate Mitchell Pearce in the halves in his Origin debut.

Front-rower James Tamou makes his Blues debut after playing for the Kangaroos in April. Luke Lewis starts in the second row, bumping Ben Creagh to the interchange. Trent Merrin, Williams and Buhrer round out their bench.

Meanwhile Queensland have largely stuck solid to the unit that got the job done in 2011 – although it’s the first time in 15 years they’ll run onto the field without Darren Lockyer. His retirement sees Johnathan Thurston shift to five-eighth, a role he’s filled with skill through 10 NRL games, with Cooper Cronk elevated from the bench to assume the No.7.

Jharal Yow-Yeh’s season-ending ankle injury sees Brent Tate return to the squad on the wing after last representing in 2008.

David Shillington’s good form and availability ensures his inclusion on the bench at the expense of Jacob Lillyman; ditto Rabbitoh Dave Taylor for Corey Parker.

Bronco Matt Gillett is their only debutant, filling the utility role on the bench.

Should the Maroons prevail on Wednesday night it will be a huge blow to the Blues’ hopes of ending Queensland’s dominance – they’ve gone on to secure an Origin series after losing the opener just twice, in 1994 and 2005.

Watch Out Blues: The psychic connection between Melbourne trio Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith is bound to create migraines. In particular the combination between Slater and Cronk will need to be monitored, with inside shifts, pinpoint kicks and short passes all on the menu.

Throw in Johnathan Thurston and the Maroons boast an overwhelming advantage on exposed attacking form: ‘JT’ and Cronk rank first and second in the NRL for try assists and line-break assists, with a combined 29 and 24 in those categories respectively. By comparison Mitchell Pearce and Todd Carney have combined for just 15 in each category.

New South Wales can’t afford to let Queensland assert an early advantage – the Maroons have led at halftime every game in the past two series. The Blues have shown great character to mount comebacks but with the exception of Game Two last year it’s been too little too late. The Blues simply have to head to halftime with their noses in front.

Josh Morris, playing out of position at right centre, has the task ahead containing the explosive Greg Inglis, who leads all players for line-breaks (11) and will be particularly dangerous attracting attention inside the Blues’ 10-metre zone.  

Danger Sign: If the Maroons roll through the middle third of the field in the opening exchanges it will set things up for their outside backs to cut loose. Even when NSW triumphed in Game Two last year the Maroons still won the battle for territory in the first 40 minutes. In particular their battering rams Petero Civoniveva and Matthew Scott need to be felled early: the pair combined for a whopping 323 metres last Origin game.  

Watch Out Maroons: In Paul Gallen and James Tamou the Blues have a front row that can really put it to the Maroons. Gallen leads all-comers for territory in 2012, averaging 205 metres – including a staggering 248 metres in two appearances at prop for the Sharks. Meanwhile Tamou averages 151 metres up front for the Cowboys.

If the Blues get on top early and the Maroons’ alarmingly high rate of missed tackles in second halves continues, NSW will be right in the contest: Queensland missed 22 tackles in the last 40 minutes of Game One last year and 32 in Game Two – plus a whopping 43 in the final game of 2010.

The Maroons will find Todd Carney a totally different proposition to Jamie Soward at five-eighth. Carney will take on the line a lot more and can break tackles and offload too. The key will be to minimise the time he has to make decisions while offering a unified defensive line.

Tony Williams can be the game-changer: in his three NRL games he’s made four line-breaks and 25 tackle busts.

Danger Sign: Jarryd Hayne’s individual brilliance and ball-playing skills have the potential to swing the game for the Blues. He averages almost one line-break in each of his 13 games in the sky blue, plus he’s made nine offloads, 94 tackle-breaks, and an impressive 142.2 metres a match. If Hayne heads infield and makes inroads inside the Maroons’ 20, just watch the Blues’ confidence soar.

Plays To Watch: Brett Stewart supporting out wide and saving tries (17 so far in 2012); Robbie Farah’s creativity out of dummy-half; Glenn Stewart’s playmaking on the right edge; Thurston’s show-and-go, especially on the left edge which will enable him to unleash his lethal left-foot sidestep; Dave Taylor’s unpredictability on either edge of the field, with belated offloads and even grubbers; Sam Thaiday’s hit-and-spin at the defensive line before offloading wide; Cameron Smith hitting short-side runners.

Michael Jennings v Justin Hodges: It will be interesting to see how Jennings responds after being dumped to NSW Cup a fortnight ago. At his best he’s a dynamite force – as illustrated by his try, game-high 11 tackle busts and three line-breaks in NSW’s narrow loss in Game One last year. He has incredible pace off the mark and his sidestep and swerve are among the best in the game. Meanwhile Hodges is a threat out wide or in close – he averages 100 metres in Origins and his right-foot sidestep will test Jennings’ nerve. Hodges will also be used out of dummy-half often, looking to catch out tiring defenders and providing the big Maroons forwards a breather. He has made the third-most dummy-half dashes in 2012.

Where It Will Be Won: Consistency, building pressure and not affording the opposition any relief.

Last series serves as a barometer: in Origin I last year the Maroons completed 83 per cent of their sets to the Blues’ miserable 63 per cent. They made half as many errors as the Blues’ 16. Three weeks later NSW won the completions 89 per cent to 83 per cent. Again, the winning (Blues) side made half as many errors – five to the Maroons’ 10. And in Game Three, Queensland wrapped up the series registering an 84 per cent to 71 per cent completion rate.

A look at the rap sheets from Game Three shows Johnathan Thurston (four errors), Mitchell Pearce (two errors) and Sam Thaiday (two errors and two penalties conceded) need to watch their steps.

The History: Played 93 (since 1980); Queensland 49, NSW 42, drawn 2. Queensland have won three of the five games played in Melbourne and have won both clashes at Etihad Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: Queensland defeated NSW 34-24 at Suncorp Stadium in Game Three last year.

The 2012 series may have been open for the taking heading into this clash, but it was as good as sealed inside 33 minutes when Queensland blazed to a 24-nil lead.

To their credit the Blues rallied to close the gap to 10 points following two tries in the final three minutes before the break.

An arm wrestle ensued for the first 20 minutes of the second section – but when Billy Slater and Greg Inglis crossed within three minutes of each other for a 34-12 lead with 10 minutes remaining the Queensland crowd found their full voice.

Still, NSW would not lie down, with Jarryd Hayne and Greg Bird crossing for tries to add respectability to the scoreboard.

Queensland based their victory on no-nonsense footy, offering just three offloads compared to the Blues who were forced to chance their hand with 15 offloads.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: New South Wales’ best chance is for the individual brilliance of Farah, Hayne and Carney to post points early. If the Blues don’t get off to a flyer, Queensland will grind them down. We foresee a decisive win to the ‘visitors’ – their roster simply boasts too much continuity and class. Queensland by eight points.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats

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