New South Wales v Queensland
Ricky Stuart’s new-look, ‘upwardly mobile’ Blues head into Origin II with the weight of the New South Wales rugby league world on their shoulders as they battle to stave off yet another demoralising series defeat – a record sixth straight. But in ditching with convention and entering the cauldron with just two recognised props and three specialist fullbacks, is there a danger Ricky has ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’?
Queensland emerged 16-12 winners in Game One three weeks ago – but only stole the victory late courtesy of a 72nd-minute minute try to Billy Slater after the Blues had clawed to an unlikely 12-10 lead following an attacking blitzkrieg that yielded four-pointers to Mitchell Pearce and Michael Jennings in the 65th and 69th minutes. It was ‘unlikely’ in that the Maroons were dominant all around the park on the night, seemingly cruising and holding the edge in possession and also attack but unable to shake off the gutsy Blues.
Stuart’s selections for Game Two – part injury-forced and part reaction to some ineffective play in the series opener – are certainly curious. Starting props Jason King and Kade Snowden have been cut loose, along with Game One starting hooker Dean Young, with captain and lock Paul Gallen switched to the front row. Parramatta’s Tim Mannah, who came off the interchange last game, will partner Gallen from kick-off, with Michael Ennis to start at hooker. Greg Bird shifts to lock to cover for Gallen, with Ben Creagh promoted from the bench to partner Dragons team-mate Beau Scott in the second row.
Left centre Michael Jennings’ ankle injury sustained while playing for Penrith last week sees 19-year-old Sea Eagle Will Hopoate (a specialist fullback) pull on a Blues jersey after just 15 NRL games, while Brett Morris’ hamstring strain paves the way for Jarryd Hayne to return to the Origin fold; albeit on the left wing, not his preferred position. Roosters’ fullback Anthony Minichiello, a Stuart favourite, dons the No.1 after incumbent Josh Dugan was ruled out for a month with ankle ligament damage last week; the 31-year-old hasn’t suited up for Origin since Game I in 2007.
The remainder of the squad confirms the NSW game plan, which will be to run, attack, and run some more. Former Blues captain Kurt Gidley, who missed Game One through a shoulder dislocation, warms the pine alongside gifted ball-playing Panthers back-rower Luke Lewis. They’re joined by broken-field wrecking ball Anthony Watmough, with Game One interchange prop Trent Merrin rounding out the 17. (Dean Young and Jason King are the shadow players in jerseys 18 and 19.)
Meanwhile the Maroons have just the two changes: Greg Inglis has recovered from a hamstring injury to take his place in the centres – a timely return given Willie Tonga is unavailable after injuring his shoulder in Game One – while Rabbitohs back-rower Dave Taylor has bumped Jacob Lillyman off the bench.
Watch Out Blues: Two words: Johnathan Thurston. The No.6 has been the standout player in the NRL this year, leading the all-important stats categories of try assists and line-break assists with 17 and 20 respectively. It was Thurston’s try in the fifth minute in Game One, trailing a Cameron Smith grubber kick, which set the Blues back on their heels. Support play such as that, and his famous show-and-go, will need to be monitored closely.
Dave Taylor’s inclusion gives the Maroons a potent left-edge attack that will target and terrorise Mark Gasnier, Jamie Soward and Akuila Uate all night. If it’s not Greg Inglis dishing out ‘don’t argues’ on Gasnier and stepping him on the outside, Taylor will be charging hard from close range, either taking on the defence or looking to slip a silky offload to Darius Boyd outside him. Taylor has 31 offloads for Souths in 2011, the fourth-most in the comp.
Meanwhile Corey Parker will be a threat doing exactly the same on the opposite side of the park. Parker has 32 offloads for the year to rank third-most dangerous second-phase promoter.
Danger Sign: If Cameron Smith is allowed latitude out of dummy-half, like he was in Game One, the Blues will find it impossible to wrest control. Smith touched the ball a massive 121 times in Game One and as the settled playmaker the Maroons were in the groove all night. Meanwhile Michael Ennis’ 49 touches were the highest by a Blues player, illustrating to some degree their absence of a real go-to man.
Watch Out Maroons: Michael Jennings was devastating down the left edge last game, making game-highs in metres (179), line-breaks (three) and tackle-breaks (11). But with no Lawrence and no Brett Morris the Blues may choose to shift their focus to the right-side pairing of Mark Gasnier and Akuila Uate – especially lining up against a potentially suspect Greg Inglis who has not been at his best for the Rabbitohs in either attack or defence (averages just 85 metres and nine tackles, with two misses). The key though will be for Gasnier to get the ball deeper, after club team-mate Darius Boyd contained him easily last outing. With room to move he can gift Uate open space – Gasnier ranks fourth for line-break assists with nine, mostly from his trademark flick offload.
A greater workload on the right side will allow rookie Hopoate to ease into proceedings. He can definitely prove a game-breaker for the home side – he’s scored eight tries and is averaging 17 runs for 152 metres a game.
Danger Sign: You’ll know if things are turning the Blues’ way by the ability of the new mobile pack to bust the Queensland defensive line. If they are punching holes in the Maroons with energy and urgency midway through the first half, they’ll be on top.
Plays To Watch: Anthony Minichiello swapping with Jarryd Hayne when the Blues start a set of six inside the Queensland half – Hayne is a freak at making things happen (nine try assists, 13 line-break assists) and is a better contributor with the ball in his hands than as a finisher on the flank; Jamie Soward getting to dictate the plays in the first half; Akuila Uate looking to punch through the right edge either from dummy-half or first receiver; Gallen ripping in all night; Billy Slater chiming in on both edges, Cameron Smith and Darren Lockyer punching the play down the short sides; Johnathan Thurston running any time the Maroons are camped near the Blues’ 10-metre zone.
Where It Will Be Won: In our Game One preview we predicted the clash would be determined by the “arm wrestle in the middle of the park”. That proved correct, with the Maroons dominating field position and territory. Queensland made 58 runs more than NSW for a 386-metre territorial advantage (1503 metres to 1117 metres). They achieved it through relentless go-forward and on the back of completing 11 sets of six tackles more than the Blues. Their starting props Matthew Scott and Petero Civoniceva totalled 297 metres between them – Blues starters Kade Snowden and Jason King muddled to a combined 70 metres.
This is Origin, after all, so the arm wrestle will be the focus again.
Last preview we also observed “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…” Well, here he gets to play totally like a front-rower – and he won’t look out of place. In Game One he stomped out 124 metres and he’s averaging the top number in the NRL with 183 a week, as well as the most hit-ups (241).
Stuart has surrounded Gallen with impact players. Mannah’s 177 hit-ups in the NRL are more than Civoniceva has made; big-striding Ben Creagh gets a chance to bend the line from the outset; and Greg Bird was the only Blues player other than centre Jennings to make a line-break last game.
Off the bench, Watmough’s past fortnight for the Sea Eagles has been stunning – against the Bulldogs he made 17 runs, 133 metres with six tackle-breaks and 39 tackles and the week before against the Broncos he made 17 runs, 157 metres, six tackle-breaks and 33 tackles.
It’s a given the Maroons will play it tight and forceful from the start. If the Blues can seize the initiative from them early and get them back-pedalling, they just might have a sniff of extending the series to a decider in Brisbane.
The History: Played 91 (since 1980); Queensland 48, NSW 41, drawn 2.
Conclusion: This could provide a watershed game in State of Origin history. If the lightweight Blues’ pack can get the better of the Maroons and provide a springboard to victory it could rewrite the manual for the accepted selection process. It’s a huge gamble by Stuart but it’s clear he’s not about to die wondering.
The Maroons are in the box seat. They are settled and are only strengthened by the inclusion of Inglis and Taylor. They haven’t put in a poor performance in more than five years; while some might say that only means the laws of probability suggest one is due, anyone brave enough to put money on it?
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Daniel Eastwood; Video Refs – Sean Hampstead & Russell Smith.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats