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Our exclusive Origin II preview

Click here for the NSW Aussie Blues team list
Click here for the XXXX Queensland Maroons team list

New South Wales v Queensland

ANZ Stadium
Wednesday 8pm

The weight of Origin history falls on the shoulders of both teams for polar-opposite reasons, with Craig Bellamy and his NSW Blues players desperate to avoid becoming the first team to lose four successive series, and Mal Meninga’s Maroons just as committed to inflicting such a crushing defeat.

How the pendulum has swung. It was exactly three years ago that Queensland were in this very predicament; having lost Game One in 2006 17-16, the Maroons needed to win Game Two to stave off a fourth series loss. They murdered the Blues at home at Suncorp Stadium 30-6, then took the decider in Melbourne to notch the first series win that leads them to Wednesday night's ‘Holy Grail’.

The Blues can take some small comfort from that.

They can also enter the arena confident they can compete with a Queensland side that’s been labelled the strongest ever, boasting as it does the entire Australian backline (although they lose Justin Hodges to injury here).

NSW had a 50:50 try ruled against them early in Game One (Jarryd Hayne’s touchline saga) then buckled under a Queensland blitzkrieg to trail 18-2 after just 18 minutes. That they clawed their way back to have the game still in the balance at 24-18 with 12 minutes to play showed they have the skill and composure to overcome adversity.

Significantly, their squad is strengthened by individuals who return from injury, suspension… even the rugby league wilderness. Also, others deservedly get their chance to further their representative careers.

With Knights winger James McManus sidelined Manly’s Kangaroos winger David ‘Wolfman’ Williams makes his Origin debut. His team-mate Glenn Stewart, also an Aussie rep at the 2008 World Cup, will also make his debut after missing Game One due to suspension. Stewart is one of three new faces in the pack, which has been overhauled due to injuries to prop Luke Bailey and lock Luke Lewis, with Anthony Laffranchi overlooked. Cronulla’s Paul Gallen returns after missing Game One with injury, while Manly’s Anthony Watmough has been recalled to add to his 27 minutes from Game One in 2005.

Penrith’s Michael Jennings has succumbed to a calf injury suffered in Game One; his place at centre has been taken by Canberra’s Joel Monaghan.

But the biggest selection talking point comes at five-eighth, with Raider Terry Campese dumped to make way for Cronulla’s veteran pivot Trent Barrett – a seven-times Blues rep who hasn’t played Origin since 2005.

Meanwhile Queensland has drafted Cowboys flyer Willie Tonga to cover for Hodges; Tonga played two games for the Maroons in 2004.
Coach watch: Mal Meninga has an impressive 70 per cent winning record from his 10 games at the helm for Queensland. But this game looms as defining for NSW mentor Craig Bellamy who enters with a 1-3 record. A loss here and there will be calls for anew coach in 2010.    

Watch out Queensland: Kurt Gidley does not want to go down in history as the Blues captain who lost a fourth straight Origin series. He made some uncharacteristic errors in Game One but was still a huge force, running 23 times for 266 metres. He will seek out the ball at every opportunity.

Importantly there’s no pressure on Anthony Watmough – although he can be a defensive liability (averaging 3.6 missed tackles this year, including six misses twice), he’s here to provide scoring opportunities or score tries himself. He’ll be looking for breaks off Gallen, Stewart and Barrett.

Speaking of defensive liabilities, Queensland need to protect Darren Lockyer or face the consequences. Expect the NSW forwards to target Lockyer in the line, getting him to make repeated tackle attempts to wear him out. Lockyer made 13 tackles in Game One – but missed seven.

Watch out NSW: Put simply, the Blues need to bustle the Queensland side early and stop them getting into any rhythm – or their backs will run riot.

Many see Willie Tonga as a weak link – but Tonga will eat up playing amongst such a talented backline; he’s big, strong, has deft footwork and is defensively sound.

Cameron Smith is the key for Queensland. If the Blues don’t niggle and frustrate him he’ll lay a platform for Queensland. Watch to see if Smith starts whingeing to the refs; if he does, you’ll know NSW are on their way to a win.

Where it will be won: Whoever gets on top in the first 20 minutes. Simple as that. Game One was evidence of how crucial an early assault can be. Although they wilted a little having expended early energy, Queensland put too many points on the board in the first 20 for NSW to recover.

The Blues’ team selections are interesting – they haven’t plugged Bailey’s absence with another prop. Rather, they’ve invested in mobile and creative forwards Stewart and Watmough. This is a sure-fire indicator that NSW will try to blow the game open early.

Also, coach Bellamy brought his club’s wrestling coach into the Blues’ camp to prepare for this game, which suggests they’ll try to test the refs’ patience with stalling tactics at the ruck. This will help combat the go-forward of Steve Price (140 metres from just 44 minutes in Game One), Civoniceva (129 metres, 41 minutes) and Nate Myles (89 metres, 33 minutes).

If they get away with it, Queensland may find it hard to return fire given the Blues have opted for a more mobile pack.

The game also hinges on the tremendous match-ups around the park – in particular the battle of hookers Cameron Smith v Robbie Farah, the four halves and the two sets of props.
Certainly both sides have players that can make things happen. Johnathan Thurston leads the NRL for line-break assists with 15 – just one ahead of Barrett. Queensland utility Karmichael Hunt has 10, Darren Lockyer and Billy Slater 9.

NSW winger Jarryd Hayne is second in the comp for line-breaks with 12. Anthony Watmough is third for offloads with 33, Paul Gallen fifth with 30. Watmough has the most tackle breaks (84), followed by Maroons’ winger Darius Boyd (76).

NSW skipper Kurt Gidley has made the most runs in the NRL (233).

At hooker Robbie Farah leads the league for dummy-half breaks with six – double that of his nearest rival Cameron Smith.

As is always the case between evenly matched sides with strong counter attack, both camps need to make sure their clearing kicks are mostly to space and with a good kick chase.

The History: Played 85 (since 1980); NSW 40, Queensland 43, drawn 2.

Conclusion: Too tough to call. A win by either side – even a dominant one – would not surprise. Although Queensland have won two of the past three at ANZ Stadium, the home venue, the changes NSW have made, plus the loss of Hodges, make us think the Blues will stave off a fourth series defeat – for now. If they win, there’s always Game Three… which will provide exactly the same scenario between these two sides in 2006. What a thought!

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Paul Holland; Video Refs – Bill Harrigan and Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

Click here for the NSW Aussie Blues team list
Click here for the XXXX Queensland Maroons team list

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