City v Country preview

City Origin v Country Origin
Lavington Sports Ground, Albury
Friday 7.35pm

Talk of the annual City v Country clash being a meaningless exhibition match to take the game’s best players on a promotional tour of regional areas has been thrown out the window in 2011. With Blues coach Ricky Stuart openly telling the media that there are only two guaranteed selections for Game One of State of Origin (one of whom is currently injured), this particular representative game has never been so important.

With Queensland dominating the Kangaroos’ line-up there are Possibles vs Probables match-ups across the park; it’s just hard to tell which players are the ‘probables’.

While the structure of the NSW halves pairing has been generating most debate, whoever selectors choose will be reliant on a forward pack able to match the Queenslanders, and it all starts in the engine room.

Of the eight front-rowers who will take the field in Albury, Aiden Tolman stands head and shoulders above all others when it comes to average metres gained through eight rounds of the NRL. Since arriving from the Storm over summer Tolman has ploughed into opposition defences at the rate of 152.4 metres per game – the best in the NRL and 25 metres more than City opposite number, Tim Mannah.

With Kade Snowden called into the Kangaroos’ squad, it will be a bruising battle between Country bookends Tolman, Dan Hunt, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Trent Merrin and City props Mannah, Keith Galloway, Tim Grant and Shane Shackleton to see who will partner Snowden up front for Game One.

There are too many mouth-watering match-ups to run through them all but man of the match in this fixture last year, Josh Dugan, will make a play for Jarryd Hayne’s fullback spot and Country half Jarrod Mullen will face off against Mitchell Pearce to see who will partner likely five-eighth, Jamie Soward.

The beauty for fans is that everyone taking the field has so much to play for.

Watch Out City: Injury has curtailed his start to the season (and contributed to the Raiders’ disastrous run of losses) but Country fullback Josh Dugan loves nothing more than the big occasion.

In his first senior representative match Dugan starred, running for 209 metres, scoring the opening try for Country in the 28th minute and registering five tackle-breaks. He was called into a 21-man Blues’ squad for Game Three in 2010 but will want to make the custodian’s role his own this year. And in the All Stars game in February he won the Preston Campbell Medal as best on ground.

He sounded a warning shot to the City defence with a two-try, nine line-break performance in a badly beaten Raiders team last weekend, showing Blues’ selectors that he has well and truly recovered from the mystery leg injury that kept him out of football for a month.

Danger Sign: Country is blessed with arguably the game’s two best kicking games in the halves pairing of Jarrod Mullen and Jamie Soward. Although both are left-footed, the constant threat of 40/20s, towering bombs and judicious grubber kicks will have the City defence in a state of unease for the entire 80 minutes. And just when they might think they have got their respective kicking games contained, either Mullen or Soward has the ability to split the line themselves with a sharp step and quick turn of pace.

(And for the record, Mullen’s pass for the Knights’ opening try against the Storm last weekend was one of the five best passes in the NRL for 2011 thus far.)

Watch Out Country: If Country players don’t think for a minute that Beau Champion and Nathan Merritt are excited to be partnering up once more, they best think again.

Playing alongside each other on South Sydney’s right side in 2010, Champion and Merritt chalked up 30 tries and 27 line-breaks between them and will take no time reacquainting themselves in the City backline, a plus for any representative team.

There’s a handy City combination in the front row also, with captain Robbie Farah eager to stake his claim for the Blues’ hooking role in the absence of Country rake Michael Ennis. He will do so with Tigers’ team-mate Keith Galloway alongside him, the big prop in arguably career-best form and one strong performance away from higher representative honours.

Where It Will Be Won: In the halves – which means it will really be won by the forwards. In particular, which back-rowers can dent the opposition’s edge defence.

In Mark Minichiello and Simon Dwyer, the City pack has two of the strongest running back-rowers in the competition. Minichiello is second in the NRL with 25 tackle-breaks through eight rounds, Dwyer not far behind with 18. Country are also well served in this department with Chris Houston (20) and Glenn Stewart (12) capable of busting tackles, Stewart adding 12 offloads and almost 36 tackles per game to his workload.

Add a desperate-to-impress Chris Heighington (Country) and all-round threat Liam Fulton (City), and the starting back-rowers are going to have a big say in proceedings.

The History: Played 21; City 12, Country 8, drawn 1. City have won five of the past eight games although Country recorded a stirring 36-18 win in Port Macquarie last year.

Conclusion: You can normally tell 20 minutes into an NRL game which team has “turned up” and which one hasn’t. Don’t expect to be able to draw any conclusions so early in this game. For many players this will be their best chance to impress New South Wales selectors and they do so knowing a sky blue jumper is genuinely within reach.

The forwards will rip in from the opening whistle and both sets of halves will be eager to show that they have what it takes to control a game at a higher level. There is size and speed in both backlines and in the opposing fullbacks you have two of the most exciting talents in the game.

The kicking game of Country halves Mullen and Soward may give their side an edge if they are struggling to gain ground up the middle but the threat posed by City hooker Robbie Farah will be ever present.

A game like this should never come down to goal-kicking, but in Soward and Michael Gordon, Country have two genuine sharpshooters… while City have none.

If City are to be triumphant Farah and Mitchell Pearce need to dictate proceedings but if the Country pack can win the arm wrestle then the boys from the bush should win for the second year in a row. Just.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 9.45pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.