Queensland v New South Wales
Suncorp Stadium
Wednesday 8.10pm

All the focus has been on the Blues in the lead up to this year’s State of Origin opener, as they desperately look to avert a historic (some would say notorious) sixth straight series defeat. For the first time they have appointed a specialist coach in Ricky Stuart – the last Blues coach to win a series, back in 2005.

His policy of only picking players in their specialist club positions, as well as picking players who play the style of game that he wants the Blues to play, has resulted in the controversial omissions of Jarryd Hayne and Jamal Idris.

In all, 10 players have been returned from the side that almost snatched victory in Game Three last year. Among the seven players to make way, winger Michael Gordon and utility Kurt Gidley are injured and pivot Trent Barrett has retired. Lack of game time may have hurt Luke Lewis’ chances, while Hayne, Anthony Watmough and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs were the other players dropped.

Idris did not play in Game Three last year but now joins a select group of players including Anthony Watmough (2009) and Brent Kite (2008) to miss Origin selection after playing for Australia in the early season Test.

The new players include Josh Dugan at fullback, Akuila Uate on the wing, Mark Gasnier in the centres, Jamie Soward at five-eighth and Ben Creagh, Trent Merrin and Dean Young on the bench. All have been rewarded for excellent form this year at club level and/or the City-Country match.

There remains a question mark over the utility value of the Blues’ bench – Dean Young is great at dummy-half or in the back row for the Dragons, and looks to be an Origin-type player, but if one of the outside backs or playmakers goes down Ricky Stuart could have a real headache on his hands trying to reshuffle the team structure.

The new-look line-up does correct the aberration that saw just three Dragons (including Darius Boyd for Queensland) play the third Origin match last year despite being the form team of the NRL. With five Dragons among the seven new players joining Brett Morris and Beau Scott, 2011’s most dominant NRL side contributes seven players to the Blues’ line-up.

Meanwhile the Maroons have virtually crept under the radar, and the only thing they seem to have lost in the past five series is their perennial ‘underdogs’ tag. But it turns out favouritism sits comfortably with the current crop, who last year recorded the first clean sweep by a Queensland side since Paul Vautin’s squad of 1995.

They haven’t been completely without disruption however – star centres Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges have both been rubbed out with injury, replaced by Dane Nielsen and Willie Tonga. Nielsen has been rewarded for his good form for the Storm, while Tonga played all three Origin matches last year when Hodges was missing with an Achilles injury.

Winger Jharal Yow Yeh will play his first Origin match, replacing AFL defector Israel Folau. Bench forwards Dave Shillington, Neville Costigan and Dave Taylor miss out through either injury or lack of form, replaced by Ben Hannant, who missed game three last year through injury, as well as Corey Parker and Jacob Lillyman who both return to the Origin arena after long absences on the back of excellent club form.

Those who think the current wave of Queensland dominance is killing Origin need only cast their mind back to 2000, when New South Wales capped a series clean sweep with a 56-16 thrashing. Queensland responded by recalling Wayne Bennet as coach, who put a broom through the squad, announcing 10 debutants who stunned the Blues by winning the opening match and eventually the series.

Watch Out Queensland: The much-maligned Jamie Soward finally makes his Origin debut, and few people could argue that the Blues have picked the most in-form pivot available. Soward’s precision kicking and passing game have been a huge part of the Dragons’ success over the past two seasons, and it’s an area where New South Wales have struggled since the retirement of Andrew Johns.

Soward has kicked the most times in the NRL this year, with 134, and his 4981 kick metres are well clear of second-placed James Maloney (3898). His 12 try assists – many of those from kicks – are behind only Johnathan Thurston’s 14. His running game, often perceived as a weakness, has also come into its own this year, as witnessed by his dismantling of the Parramatta Eels in Round 8 when he broke the line three times and ran for 161 metres.

Kicking is a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Blues, and how Queensland handle Soward’s range of kicks will go a long way to determining the result. In particular his long, low, driving kicks don’t give opposition backs as much time to get under the ball and run it back at pace, often turning them around and helping chasers pin those players down early in a set.

Danger Sign: Soward receives the ball deeper than most kickers, and it allows him that extra second to choose where he wants it to go. It works beautifully for the Dragons, so don’t expect Ricky Stuart to mess with the formula. Whenever the Blues need a good kick to get them out of trouble expect Soward to be well back from the play-the-ball, ready to get a clearing kick away.

Watch Out New South Wales: Where do we start? There’s a reason the Maroons have won five in a row, and there’s a reason they supplied 10 of the 13 starting players for Australia in the recent VB Test. Four of those reasons are named Slater, Lockyer, Thurston and Smith, who fill the crucial 1-6-7-9 roles that make up the spine of a football side.

Of those four world class players, any one of them is capable of turning an Origin match, but if we had to pick one, Thurston seems to be in a league of his own in 2011. ‘JT’ has a habit of playing out of his skin in Origin, regardless of what his form is like coming into the game or whether he’s under an injury cloud.

This year he enters the Origin arena in what could quite possibly be the best form of his career. Thurston leads the NRL for try assists with 14 (next best is Benji Marshall with 12) and line-break assists (19 – next best Jarryd Hayne, 12). If you cut it back to just halfbacks, Thurston also leads the way in line-breaks (seven), tries (six) and average running metres (73.7), and is second in offloads (11) and tackle-breaks (31).

It all speaks to a player at the very peak of his powers, and with the calibre of players he has around him he can turn the game very quickly.

Danger Sign: Much of Thurston’s success this year has stemmed from the fact that if opposition defenders rush up to pressure his kicking game he can step past them, but if they wait for the kick his running game can still cause huge problems. Watch for Thurston to run the ball early when the Blues are expecting a kick, just to remind them they can never know what to expect.

Plays To Watch: A furious opening stanza, as the Blues’ new-look forward pack clashes with the Maroons stalwarts; searching kick returns from Billy Slater causing havoc any time the defence offers half an opening; Thurston kicking high to the corners targeting the safe hands of Boyd and Yow Yeh; precision kicking from Soward to pressure the inexperienced Maroons centres; telepathic communication on the Blues’ right-side attack as club mates Soward, Beau Scott and Mark Gasnier link up; wingers Boyd and Uate venturing infield looking for work and taking vital hit-ups; instant impact from bench props Mannah and Hannant around the 25-minute mark; Paul Gallen to lift an extra gear (if that’s humanly possible) in his new role as Blues skipper.

Where It Will Be Won: One of the keys to the recent Maroon dominance has been the ease with which they’ve won the arm wrestle in the middle of the park. The Blues are yet to find a combination who can match it with the likes of Petero Civoniceva, Matthew Scott, Sam Thaiday or the recently retired Steve Price. Plenty of times in the past five series the Blues have come out fired up, but then found themselves backpedalling through the opening 20 minutes as Queensland’s ferocious forwards monstered them up the middle.

The Blues have some of the most prolific metre-eating front-rowers in the NRL, with Snowden (120 metres per game), Mannah (126 metres) and Merrin (117 metres) all getting through a mountain of work.

But possibly the key player here as far as the Blues are concerned will be new skipper Paul Gallen. The burly lock plays almost as an extra front-rower at times and leads by example week in week out for the Sharks, averaging an amazing 185 metres per game in 2011. His aggression and his combination with former Sharks teammate and fellow back row tyro Greg Bird will be crucial to the Blues attempting to match it with the Maroons’ forwards.

The History: Played 90 (since 1980); NSW 41, Queensland 47, drawn 2. The Blues have been victorious in Game One of a series on 15 occasions to Queensland’s 14. But the Maroons have won the series opener four of the past six years.

Conclusion: When you look at the calibre of players in the Queensland side it’s easy to see why the Maroons’ fans are so confident of making it six series in a row. But the Blues have a different look and feel about them this year, trying something they haven’t tried before and planning well.

With such a settled line-up and the home ground advantage at ‘Fortress Suncorp’, the Maroons are entitled to start as favourites – but if they take the new-look Blues lightly there’s every chance they could get ambushed.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Jared Maxwell; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Jeff Younis; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.