Queensland v NSW Origin III Preview

Queensland v New South Wales
Suncorp Stadium
Wednesday 8pm

What could be worse than losing four successive State of Origin series for the first time in history? Try losing all three games of that fourth successive series defeat – that’s the embarrassing ignominy that awaits the Blues should they fail to overcome Mal Meninga’s seemingly bullet-proof Maroons next Wednesday night.

Having fallen on their swords with two inglorious efforts in Melbourne and Sydney, a new (and hopefully improved) NSW outfit will head into Queensland territory aiming to salvage a modicum of respect.

If unsuccessful they will go down in history as the sixth side to fall to a clean-sweep and the first since the Blues achieved the feat in 2000. (Seven other squads have won the first two games of an Origin series but fallen in Game Three.)

The Blues have been in this exact position five times over the past 30 years – but have been able to thwart a clean-sweep just twice.

Injuries and poor form have seen an overhaul to their ranks, with eight changes from Game Two. Halfback Peter Wallace and hooker Robbie Farah have been unceremoniously dumped for Bulldogs pair Brett Kimmorley and Michel Ennis. Kimmorley has played eight Origin games, the last in 2007 as a stop-gap recall in Game Three of that series when NSW were facing a clean-sweep defeat. Some déjà vu, huh? If it’s any guide, NSW were dominant winners on that occasion.

Ennis makes his debut after Farah played himself out of the side with two uncharacteristic, poor games. He brings aggression and an excellent ‘feeder’ game from dummy-half that will see the NSW forwards hitting their opponents’ defensive line at pace close to the ruck.

Elsewhere Michael Jennings returns to the centres having recovered from the buttocks injury he picked up in Game One; he’s joined by Bulldog Josh Morris who has been elevated to the starting 13 with Jamie Lyon’s early withdrawal.

In the pack Josh Perry comes in for dumped Manly team-mate Brent Kite, while Trent Waterhouse replaces the injured Paul Gallen.

On the bench Craig Wing return after injury, with Raider Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Storm prop Brett White joining for the injured Luke O’Donnell and Michael Weyman respectively.

Meanwhile the Maroons welcome back Justin Hodges at centre but have lost Israel Folau to a broken ankle; they’ve switched Willie Tonga from centre to wing. Cowboy Matt Scott earns an Origin recall (one game 2006) to partner Steve Price up front in the engine room in Petero Civoniceva’s absence, while Neville Costigan joins the bench to cover for Ben Hannant (out with knee ligament damage) and David Shillington comes in for the disgraced and suspended Nate Myles.

Coach watch: The Mal Meninga legend continues to grow, with the mighty mentor now holding an impressive 72.7 per cent winning record from his 11 games as coach of Queensland (8 wins, 3 losses). Meanwhile NSW’s Craig Bellamy has won just the one game from five encounters (20 per cent).     

Watch out Queensland: If performances from the first two games are any guide, coach Meninga’s message will be simple: don’t give Blues’ winger Jarryd Hayne any room to move.

In Game One the Eels speedster contributed two of his side’s four line breaks and ran 133 metres. Debate still rages about whether his touch-the sideline no-try should have been a four-pointer. In Game Two he scored two decisive tries to keep the Blues’ in the hunt and ran 22 times for 240 metres.

Hayne is predictable in his upredictability. One of his greatest assets is his knack for defusing potentially dangerous plays and turning on the counter-attack. Queensland also need pull him to ground within a few strides or else he’ll be off and gone.

The Maroons also need to avoid getting sucked in to rookie Michael Ennis’ niggle plays – Ennis is a master at getting under the skin of opponents and making them lose focus. He does so while not losing any of his skills and playmaking application. Now, Robbie Farah is a nice guy and a great player but NSW selectors have realised Ennis is an Origin-mould player. Trouble is they may have realised it two games too late.  

Watch out NSW: Greg Inglis played just 22 minutes before injury in Game Two but did enough to still figure in Player of the Match discussions. He scored a try, set up another, made two line breaks and ran 72 metres. Times that by four and some would say NSW got off lightly on the scoreboard.

With 19 appearances between them Inglis and centre partner Hodges are bound to test out their NSW opposites Michael Jennings (one game) and Josh Morris (one game). Jennings is missing almost two tackles a game in the NRL, Morris 1.5 – that’s not a lot but they can’t afford to have an off night here.

In front of a home crowd expect more involvement and a better balance from fullback Billy Slater (only 82 metres in Game Two with three handling errors). Halfback Johnathan Thurston (just nine metres in Game Two) will run at the line a bunch more too – look for his trademark dummy at some stage. Guaranteed.

Where it will be won: Excuse us if we sound like a broken record but Origin games are won in the first quarter of the game.

In Game One NSW trailed 18-2 after 18 minutes. They did a great job to get back to 24-18 with 12 to go but they simply allowed the Maroons too much too soon.

Same story three weeks ago: Queensland bolted to an 18-0 lead after 23 minutes. The Blues bridged the gap to 18-14 with 18 to play before the enormity of the task saw Queensland pull clear again approaching halftime.

The lesson is there for all to see: if either side gets on top early, it’s as good as curtains. Craig Bellamy knew that before Game Two – but that didn’t stop his side from playing like the Keystone Cops at times and basically committing hari kari in front of a packed home house.

Bellamy and Meninga will have their troops primed for early assaults. But they will impress the need to hold onto possession and minimise errors. It’s a fine line but the team that does the little things right to start with will have a huge advantage at the back end of the game.

The History: Played 86 (since 1980); Queensland 44, NSW 40, drawn 2.

Conclusion: Peter Wallace and Robbie Farah were weak links in the NSW chain and the Blues can expect greater direction and creativity from their replacements Brett Kimmorley and Michael Ennis. Kimmorley won’t be booting his clearing kicks down the throat of Billy Slater and Ennis won’t be throwing long passes for no-one in particular out of dummy-half.

Here’s what they will be doing, though: Kimmorley will be running to the line and will break up the play; how the Maroons react we’ll have to wait and see. He has 24 tackle breaks to date in the NRL and 12 offloads, so it’s a given he’ll spark more attack from the Blues’ than we’ve seen them offer in the series so far.

Meanwhile Ennis will thrive feeding big men Perry, Poore, Learoyd-Lahrs and White lots of short, flat passes from dummy-half. Also, should the side get on a roll he’ll run and drift across-field looking to pick up the likes of Anthony Watmough and Trent Waterhouse. He’s averaging seven runs a game for the Bulldogs and has 12 try assists, so there’s no doubting his value.

With the series gone NSW will be out to redeem themselves and prove to the pro-Queensland crowd they are far from the “easybeats” they’ve been painted. Their best chance is to play upbeat and hope they, for once, get off to the flying start.

But beating a hyped-up Queensland at home is a tough ask. Hodges in and Folau out is an even trade-off and on that basis alone the Maroons should still prove too brilliant out wide.

Sorry Blues’ fans but we’re prepared to call it a clean-sweep.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Steve Carrall; Video Refs – Paul Simpkins & Sean Hampstead.
 
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.