WHAT a shemozzle. First, injuries and judiciary hearings force the Blues to name a 21-man squad – not a side – in the lead up to the vital second game of the 2010 Origin series.
Attacking linchpin Jamie Lyon isn’t available. Nor is Anthony Watmough.
Then, with ace Jarryd Hayne cleared at the judiciary, selectors opt to play skipper Kurt Gidley off the bench.
The last straw: the side implodes when winger Timana Tahu walks out of the Blues’ camp after assistant coach Andrew Johns’ racial slur of Maroon Greg Inglis.
Hardly the preparation the Blues wanted for their most important game in the 30-year history of State of Origin. But there you have it.
NSW is staring down a record fifth straight series loss – and need to dominate the rampant Maroons in their own backyard, in front of a mostly parochial crowd of 50,000, if they are to extend this series to a decider in Sydney on July 7.
They’ve made some key personnel changes. Dragons centre Beau Scott joins his club team-mate Matt Cooper in the centres; Sharks five-eighth Trent Barrett gets his 10th Origin jersey; Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce plays his second game after debuting in Game Three, 2008; Canberra’s Joel Monaghan is a late call-up for Tahu; Sharks enforcer Paul Gallen replaces the injured Watmough at lock; Brett White starts at prop for the dumped Josh Perry; Gidley bumps Jamal Idris off the pine; and Eels workhorse Nathan Hindmarsh and Cowboys hard man Luke O’Donnell join the interchange bench.
Meanwhile the Maroons have just the three forced changes; David Shillington has been promoted to start for the injured Petero Civoniceva, with Ben Hannant back from injury on the bench.
Cameron Smith Smith replaces Matt Ballin at hooker.
Coach watch: Like chalk and cheese – Mal Meninga now boasts a dominant 69 per cent winning record from his 11 games guiding Queensland.
Meanwhile embattled Blues coach Craig Bellamy has a miserable 2-5 record for a 28 per cent success rate.
Watch out New South Wales: We said it before Game One: a motivated Greg Inglis is a dangerous Greg Inglis. He scored a superb try in the series opener, linking with Darius Boyd down the left flank before turning Kurt Gidley inside out to score.
Word out of the Queensland camp is he’s angry and hurt at being the target of Johns’ slur (as you would be). Expect fireworks from him.
Cameron Smith will be fresh after his enforced break with injury; the Blues’ markers need to be vigilant or he’ll trigger massive go-forward for the home side from dummy-half.
But Johnathan Thurston is the man the Blues must target. The Maroons’ halfback registered one of the most dominant Origin displays of all time in Game One, despite the best efforts of the NSW defenders.
Thurston was permitted too much latitude; instead of monstering him, the Blues’ defence seemed content to surround him with numbers rather than get physical in the encounter. A case in point was his try assist for Darius Boyd to open the Maroons’ scoring – at first receiver, Thurston dummied inside, offered a trademark show-and-go then looped a wonderful overhead lob to the unmarked Boyd. Three Blues players had the chance to shut him down; none could.
NSW also need to expect the unexpected: plays like David Shillington’s cart-up, hit, spin and offload for Lockyer’s try early in the second half really took the wind out of the home side’s sails. That’s the thing about Origin: you blink, you miss things.
Watch out Queensland: Paul Gallen’s call-up is overdue – he’s the one player the Maroons don’t want to oppose. That makes perfect sense, given his uncompromising style and relentless energy.
In the NRL in 2010 Gallen has made 260 hit-ups – streets ahead of second-highest Luke Patten’s 211. Also, he ranks second for offloads (29).
Hayne’s move to fullback will give the Blues more penetration – his average 177 metres a game ranks him tops in the comp, he’s third behind Gallen for hit-ups with 207, and he averages 12.7 metres a time on kick-returns.
Elsewhere, while Gidley won’t play a full game, it’s likely his stats at the fulltime siren will go close to mirroring an 80-minute performance; if the game is close in the second half and the Maroons forwards tire, Gidley is the go-to man that will make things happen.
The Queensland forwards would be wise to target Blues halfback Mitchell Pearce – the youngster has been in good form for the Roosters, with 10 line-break assists, nine try assists and five tries from just nine games in 2010. In particular he has an excellent left-to-right torpedo pass, meaning a quick service to right-edge attackers Beau Scott and Joel Monaghan is likely (with Hayne sure to be sniffing out opportunities there as well).
Where it will be won: Completions and maintaining intensity. At this level, not getting through sets effectively – especially in the opening stages – equates to rugby league suicide.
Also, players need to work for each other all the time and, as we’ve said earlier, expect the unexpected. If Brett White had been more alert when Thurston chipped inside for Slater to score in Game One, who knows what might have been? That’s not being unduly unfair on White; rather, it illustrates how costly even the simplest drop-off in intensity can be.
The History: Played 88 (since 1980); NSW 41, Queensland 45, drawn 2. The Blues have won two of the past three games at Suncorp Stadium.
Conclusion: There are two things people forgot to take into account in the post-mortem to Game One. First, this Queensland side would stand tall alongside the best from the past 30 years. Plenty of its players would figure in the best composite 17.
The same could not be said for the Blues.
But second, NSW were in the game for a long way; they trailed 16-12 with 20 minutes to go before the Maroons put on two quick tries. Statistics show they just underperformed given the numbers they tallied: they made more metres than Queensland (1279 to 1200), missed far fewer tackles (30 to 47), made more offloads (9 to 6), committed fewer errors (8 to 12) and completed their sets better (85 per cent to 82 per cent).
Of course, this also goes to show that Queensland made the most their opportunities. But with a rejuvenated forward pack, some new creativity in the halves and with a fresh Gidley itching to leave his mark, there are heartening signs for Blues fans.
Trouble is they have to pull it off in hostile territory… and they have to put the Johns drama behind them. Not impossible, but for us, it’s a bridge too far. Queensland by 8.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & David Abood; Video Refs – Bill Harrigan and Tim Mander.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.