Queensland gets their chance to lay a concrete foundation on their bid for a record-making fourth straight series victory in Melbourne, with team selections on both sides of the border and Queensland’s tilt at Origin immortality generating more interest in Game One than any other game over the past decade.
No question this match-up has a bit of ‘ying’ and ‘yang’ about it.
In the Maroon corner lurks Mal Meninga’s all-Australian backline which, if you believe the press, is guaranteed unstoppable. It’s certainly taken some “heat” off their ageing – although it must be admitted still punchy – forward pack headed by 35-year-old Steven Price and 32-year-old Petero Civoniceva, a pack NSW will be desperate to get on top of from the kick-off.
In the Blues’ corner selectors have finally bitten the bullet and totally overhauled their squad with seven newcomers (it was eight originally before back-rower Glenn Stewart failed to beat his dangerous tackle charge at the judiciary). That includes Dragons’ props Michael Weyman and Justin Poore and their team-mate Ben Creagh, plus Wests Tigers hooker Roobie Farah in the engine room, while five-eighth Terry Campese, centre Michael Jennings and winger James McManus make their debuts in the backline.
Queensland (with no players on debut) will field an unrivalled set of backs, plenty are suggesting the Blues have the firepower in the engine room to even things out.
Coach watch: Mal Meninga has an impressive 66 per cent winning record from his nine games at the helm for Queensland. But this game looms as defining for NSW mentor Craig Bellamy who enters with a 1-2 record.
Watch out Queensland: Our tip is the opening 20 minutes will be as fierce as any opening stanza in the history of Origin, with NSW in particular looking to dominate the early exchanges in an effort to gain control of the ruck.
The key for the Blues will be to force their opponents backwards when defending and slow down the play-the-balls; this will limit the opportunities for playmakers Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston, who thrive when given good time to organise their troops while opposition defences are struggling to re-align. But when flustered? Like anyone, they can be forced into errors.
In attack NSW will look to gain a mountain of territory and give themselves good field position – and they have the ‘pig’ prop rotation to do it. To date Luke Bailey is making 142 metres a game, Michael Weyman 128, Justin Poore 116 and Brent Kite 104. Not to mention back-rowers Luke O’Donnell 125 metres and Ben Creagh 118.
Watch out NSW: While the brilliant and creative Queensland backline threatens danger all around the park there are a few key areas the Blues can monitor.
The first is to watch out for Lockyer heading down the blindside, or switching the point of the attack down the short side. He’ll look to catch out Jennings in particular, who has a question mark over his defence; the youngster missed four tackles against the Sharks a fortnight ago.
Justin Hodges will use his strength and a big right-foot step to beat his man, so defenders on the inside will need to be attentive to ‘shut the gate’ and pick up any trailers looking for an offload.
The same applies for Inglis, although he likes to exploit blindsides with strength before offloading to the flanks.
Next, Billy Slater will run behind decoys in the Blues’ 30-metres zone, injecting himself as the second man to either take on the line or else suck in defenders and offload wide for wingers Folau and Boyd.
And Folau will be a go-to man in the air, so the Blues’ outside defenders need to swarm in numbers and legally shield their ball receivers as Folau chases. They also need to watch for his damaging runs from dummy-half – he’s made 75 so far this season to top the NRL.
Where it will be won: The forwards first. Then the backs. And the tactical kicking games of both sides – and not just those used in attack – will go a long way to determining a winner.
Whoever wins the battle up front will get good opportunities to post points – it then falls to the attacks to play their part.
Expect Robbie Farah (leading dummy-half line break exponent with six) and Cameron Smith (second behind Farah with three) to make plenty of inroads late in each half.
Both sides have superb kick returners. The Blues’ Kurt Gidley has made more overall runs than any other player in the NRL to date (210 times for a competition-high 1806 metres or 164 a game), while the Maroons’ Billie Slater (648 metres) and Darius Boyd (644 metres) are the best in the comp running the ball back from kicks.
Both camps need to make sure their kicks are mostly to space, to allow their defences time to group in the one line – or the dazzling array of talent on both sides of the park will let loose.
Also, look for the NSW kickers to go high on occasion to Billy Slater in general play – if the Melbourne custodian does have a weakness it’s his reliability under the high ball. Plus a good hang time will allow the kick-chasers the time to ensure they collar their man early.
The History: Played 84 (since 1980); NSW 40, Queensland 42, drawn 2. The Blues hold a 3-2 advantage over the Maroons in the five games played in Melbourne. Also, NSW have been victorious in Game I of a series on 15 occasions to Queensland’s 12.
Conclusion: It will be a fast, bruising and furious encounter. The match-ups across the park are stunning and it’s shaping as a game for the ages.
What’s certain is that both sides have players with specific strengths they will be looking to tap into.
Having selected new players like Creagh and Jennings, they’ll be looking for them to bring their unique skills to the party. For Creagh that means taking the ball one-off the ruck near the Maroons’ 10-metre line and carrying defenders as he takes giant strides for the line. For Jennings and Jarryd Hayne it means drawing on the explosive speed that has helped them each to a competition-high 12 line breaks.
Meanwhile Dallas Johnson will be called upon for the resolve that’s seen him notch more tackles than anyone else (515), Thurston will be a go-to man for line-break assists (11, tops in the NRL) and try assists (12, tops again).
We could go on, and we’ve missed plenty. But you get the picture.
Who will win? While Queensland deserve favouritism the Blues are in it up to their eyeballs. It doesn’t matter who you cheer for, we just know you’ll have plenty to cheer about.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Jeff Younis; Video Refs – Bill Harrigan and Tim Mander.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.