Getting out of the blocks early has never been more crucial for a New South Wales State of Origin side as it is this year, with the Blues looking (hoping… praying…) to avert an embarrassing fifth straight series loss in rugby league’s greatest contest.
The stats are stark: of the 28 series decided, Game One victors have progressed to seize the series on 20 occasions.
Other stats are similarly telling; the last time the Blues won Game One, in 2008, they muffed their challenge, losing both other games. And, worryingly, after once being on no-speaking terms with ANZ Stadium, the Maroons are now best mates with the venue, having won three of the past four games there.
Still, New South Wales’ task has been made a tad easier with the withdrawal of Test hooker Cameron Smith, who failed to recover from his elbow injury sustained in the one-off Test against New Zealand a fortnight ago. His replacement, Manly’s Matt Ballin (1023 receives, second most in the NRL), is a capable and hands-on ruck organiser who was among his side’s best in their 2008 Grand Final victory over the Storm… but he’s no Cameron Smith.
The Queensland forwards are a tight unit and Smith has been the mainstay of their campaigns since debuting in 2003 – he hasn’t missed a game and has played the past 19 Origins in succession. How much cohesion their forwards miss in Smith’s absence will be crucial.
The Blues have stuck fairly solid with the forward pack that won Game Three last year, subject to player availability and form. Out-of-sorts Eels prop Justin Poore makes way for Manly’s Josh Perry, while Penrith’s Luke Lewis beat out Sea Eagle Glenn Stewart for a bench spot.
Blues selectors have opted for some solid club combinations in the backline. Dragons’ centre/wing duo Matt Cooper and Brett Morris will attack the left side, while Eels Timana Tahu and Jarryd Hayne will attack down the right.
After plenty of debate, captain Kurt Gidley retains his position in the Blues’ starting line-up, while specialist Manly centre Jamie Lyon shifts one position in to assume Trent Barrett’s five-eighth spot.
The game also sees the Origin debut of Bulldogs centre Jamal Idris off the bench; the 115-kilogram 19-year-old is likely to be used as a “shock troop”, coming on late in either half to target tired defences – he has a whopping 61 tackle-breaks to date in 2010.
Queensland’s side is significantly different to their Game Three unit from last year. Justin Hodges is out injured (replaced by Willie Tonga, who played wing last year); Israel Folau and Petero Civoniceva return after sitting out the last game with injury; Nate Myles earns a recall after being banished; Ashley Harrison shifts from second row to assume Dallas Johnson’s lock position; and Rabbitoh David Taylor gets to make his Origin debut on the bench, in place of veteran Michael Crocker. And of course creative utility Karmichael Hunt is gone too.
Storm halfback Cooper Cronk gets the bench utility spot – an important selection given Smith’s withdrawal and lingering doubts about halfback Johnathan Thurston’s ability to get through the game without further injuring his shoulder. Chances are Cronk will get plenty of game time.
Coach watch: Mal Meninga has an impressive 60 per cent winning record from his 10 games at the helm for Queensland. Meanwhile it’s a crossroads for Blues coach Craig Bellamy who enters with a 2-2 record.
Watch out New South Wales: A motivated Greg Inglis is a dangerous Greg Inglis. While the left-side centre started 2010 in quiet fashion, the Storm’s salary cap scandal and the step up to the representative scene has seen him explode over the past few weeks.
Inglis carved up the Kiwis in the one-off Test, making 10 tackle breaks and two offloads out wide. Timana Tahu will need to be at his defensive best or he’ll be exploited – while Tahu is a renowned hard hitter with an awesome shoulder charge, it’s likely Inglis will get the ball earlier and deeper, enabling him room to move.
Elsewhere, shutting down line-breaks looms as a challenge for the Blues, with the Queensland side studded with individuals who are creating a heap of scoring opportunities for their club sides in 2010. The Maroons have three players in the top-10 for line-breaks in the NRL – Willie Tonga (2nd with 10), Israel Folau (nine) and Billy Slater (eight). Also, Greg Inglis has four. Meanwhile the Blues have just Brett Morris (nine) in the top 10.
Winger Darius Boyd will need to be watched out of dummy-half – he’s averaging 148 metres for the Dragons (albeit at fullback), with 66 tackle-breaks (almost seven a game). He’s also tallied 10 try assists.
Watch out Queensland: Plenty of critics have knocked Jarryd Hayne’s selection on the wing as a tremendous waste of his talent. We’re not buying that one bit. If he were in the no.1 in this game there would be a heap more pressure on him; he’s still learning how to defend as a fullback and Queensland would have targeted him remorselessly. But out on the wing he’ll be able to drift in and out of the play at his leisure, sizing up opportunities as they come.
The Blues have the luxury of mounting their set plays down the left edge, where Brett Morris has proven a terrier at scoring (11 tries, second in the NRL), and supporting the impulsive Hayne down the right.
While his workload won’t be as full-on as he’s delivered for the Eels in 2010 (most average metres gained with 161, plus 32 tackle breaks, 11 offloads, seven try assist) expect at least two magic moments from the game’s most electrifying talent.
Where it will be won: Having rained in Sydney for the past week and with the weather forecast for more rain into the middle of the week, this game will boil down to whoever can gain and maintain good field position and limit errors.
Neither side’s kickers can afford to have an off day with the boot when it comes to clearing kicks.
Also, the coaches’ smart use of their interchanges will be crucial.
While the forecast suggests a slight chance of being fine on the night, the ANZ Stadium surface will be extremely heavy, and quite slippery. This being the case both sides will rely heavily on their props to grind out territory.
For NSW, Michael Weyman is averaging 100 metres in 42 minutes with 23 tackles and just two errors, Josh Perry 44 minutes for 98 metres with 20 tackles and one error, and from his three games Brett White’s returns are 43 minutes, 99 metres, 17 tackles and three errors (a worry).
For Queensland, Petero Civoniceva is averaging 53 minutes, 150 metres, 21 tackles and three errors; Matthew Scott 54 minutes, 119 metres, 23 tackles and two errors; Davis Shillington 48 minutes, 122 metres, 18 tackles and five errors (a worry).
On those figures you’d expect the Queensland forwards to play more minutes at a time, which could leave them fresher at the back end of the game.
The History: Played 87 (since 1980); NSW 41, Queensland 44, drawn 2. The Blues have been victorious in Game One of a series on 15 occasions to Queensland’s 13. But the Maroons have won the series opener three of the past five years.
Conclusion: Let’s face it, when you get to this level, with such a brilliant array of talent, there’s little to separate the sides. It all boils down to accelerating early, and keeping the foot on the pedal.
Smith’s withdrawal is a huge loss for the Maroons. With him on the paddock it looked an even contest, so with him gone the scales tip the way of the Blues… just!
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & David Abood; Video Refs – Bill Harrigan and Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.