State of Origin III preview

Queensland v New South Wales
Suncorp Stadium
Wednesday 8.10pm

Two deeply committed camps lock horns in the biggest game in State of Origin history: Queensland desperate to farewell legendary skipper Darren Lockyer from the representative arena with a record sixth straight series win and New South Wales pumped to spoil the party and leave enemy turf with a series win of their own.

The Maroons delivered a fairytale ending to Wally Lewis’s career in 1991; now they are focused on closing the book on Lockyer’s 36-game career in similar fashion – and a win would see Lockyer tie Lewis’s record of 19 wins in the famous Queensland jersey.

Queensland have the home ground advantage and the weight of history behind their quest – only five times in 29 years has any side seized the decider on opposition soil. Queensland achieved the feat at the SCG in 1982 (the first year a three-game series was played), at the SFS in 1998 (Lockyer’s debut year) and at ANZ Stadium in 2008.

New South Wales beat the odds at Suncorp Stadium in 1994 and again in 2005. Those two years also tell of the huge task facing the Blues – they are the only two occasions they’ve managed to clinch a series after losing Game One.

But for all the emotion riding on Lockyer’s last representative game on Queensland soil it’s the Blues who have the momentum. But for Billy Slater’s try 72nd-minute try in Game One this could be a dead rubber. Queensland swamped the Blues in all the stats categories that count yet were left trailing when Michael Jennings crossed with 11 minutes remaining.

A radical overhaul of the Blues’ squad reaped dividends in Game Two, in particular Paul Gallen’s shift to prop and a supporting cast of mobile, lightweight, ball-playing forwards in preference to traditional tall-timber grinders.

Given such high-quality football to date, neither side was expected to tinker too much with their personnel for Game Three. Injuries aside, that’s certainly been the case.

Bullocking back-rower Dave Taylor’s five-game suspension for a dangerous lifting tackle on Bronco Scott Anderson has prompted Maroons’ coach Mal Meninga to recall Game One interchange Jacob Lillyman. But in a huge boost, strike centre Justin Hodges came through that same Rabbitohs-Broncos game in fine style; he earns an Origin recall at the expense of capable Melbourne centre Dane Nielsen.  

Meanwhile injuries loom as a major hurdle in the Blues’ preparations. Coach Ricky Stuart has named a 20-man squad including Game One hero Michael Jennings, tough Wests Tigers prop Keith Galloway and versatile Manly back-rower Glenn Stewart.

Word out of camp suggests Stuart isn’t prepared to gamble on Jennings, the first-choice replacement for injured rookie Will Hopoate. Jennings hasn’t been able to break into a run since limping off the field playing for the Panthers in Round 13. The coach’s solution will be to shift Parramatta’s Jarryd Hayne from the left wing to left centre and promote Brett Morris following his successful return from injury.

It’s expected Jamie Soward will be fit to take his place after suffering a hamstring scare last Monday night. Ditto Kurt Gidley, who did not play for the Knights last weekend.

Although there are various other minor injuries the Blues are expected to field much the same forward pack as they did in Game Two.

Watch Out Maroons: Queensland need to find a way to weather Paul Gallen’s robot-like input and still save some petrol for late in either half when the energy of Luke Lewis, Kurt Gidley and Anthony Watmough will hit them like a shock wave.

Gallen made 27 runs and clawed out 211 metres in 80 minutes in Game Two – and still managed 31 tackles. He was the only Blues forward to go the full 80 minutes (Cameron Smith, Sam Thaiday and Ashley Harrison all went the distance for the Maroons). This gave Gidley (four offloads), Watmough (136 metres and three offloads) and Lewis (a crucial try) plenty of latitude when they were injected.

And if the Maroons take their eye off Jamie Soward he’ll make them pay. The Dragons’ pivot has made the Blues’ No.6 jersey his own this series. He sealed the game for them at ANZ Stadium three weeks ago when he took on the line late in the game and offloaded to support Anthony Minichiello who scored the match-winner.

Danger Sign: Uncharacteristically for Origin, the refs blew nine penalties in Game Two. That didn’t suit the revamped, mobile Blues yet they still prevailed. Only three penalties were awarded in Game One. The fewer the penalties awarded, the better the Blues’ chances.

Watch Out Blues: Queensland won Game One without either Greg Inglis or Justin Hodges in their ranks. Here the two superstars reunite for the first time since Game Three, 2009.

Inglis was a real menace on the left fringe last outing, making 17 runs and 128 metres as well as keeping the play flowing with two offloads. He has 17 line-breaks from his 14 Origin games.

Hodges is averaging 126 metres from 15 runs in club footy this year. He’ll be used out of dummy-half often, which will give the big Maroons forwards some breathing space, while his right-foot step is certain to get a workout.

His head-to-head clash with Hayne (or Jennings) could decide the series. Hayne is an unknown quantity at centre and although his attacking game would seem suited, there’s a huge difference in defending in the front line to roving across as fullback.

In the Suncorp Stadium cauldron the Blues will need to watch their discipline – in particular hooker Michael Ennis who is chief NRL bad boy, having conceded the most penalties by any player (19). What’s more, Ennis conceded two penalties last game and one of the three penalties blown in Game One. A Blues team-mate needs to be handy to grab Ennis’ jersey and pull him off opponents or else he is certain to gift the opposition a free ride at some stage.  

Danger Sign: The Maroons will target Hayne, no question. If they run at him often enough and find him out defensively it could see Hayne’s outside man Brett Morris leave his wing to assist, opening up opportunities for offloads to Jharal Yow Yeh and Billy Slater down the right edge.

Plays To Watch: Billy Slater running inside support plays when the Maroons attack from close range; cross-field bombs for Brett Morris and Akuila Uate – the Newcastle flyer has defused just 44 per cent of kicks aimed his way all year; Lockyer running the ball on the last tackle or changing the angle of the attack with a quick switch down the short side; Johnathan Thurston’s show-and-go; Cameron Smith having a dig from dummy-half – especially if the Blues are on the quick retreat; Petero Civoniceva hitting the line with ramrod legs; Anthony Minichiello winding back the clock and matching his Origin career average 19.6 runs; Mark Gasnier looking to get on the outside of Greg Inglis, attracting Darius Boyd to the play and offloading to Uate; Uate charging straight and hard from dummy-half; Jamie Soward checking his run and ducking back to the other side of the field, then piloting a short high kick for supports; Luke Lewis and Anthony Watmough looking for open space; and of course, Paul Gallen in everything.

Where It Will Be Won: Minimising errors… maximising completions… and kicking to open space. Origin is all about building pressure and the side that mounts it best usually wins.

In Game One Queensland completed 83 per cent of their sets to NSW’s 63 per cent. They made half as many errors – just eight to their opponent’s 16. In Game Two NSW won the completions 89 per cent to 83 per cent. Again, the winning side made half as many errors – five to the Maroons’ 10.

In Game One the Maroons won the battle of the boot, kicking 28 times for 705 metres; the Blues kicked 18 times. In Game Two the Blues kicked 26 times for a whopping 908 metres; the Maroons tallied 710 metres from 23 kicks.

Jamie Soward is kicking to open space 60 per cent of the time in club footy for the Dragons. Chief Maroons’ kicker Darren Lockyer is finding open space 45 per cent of the time for the Broncos, while back-up Johnathan Thurston is recording 70 per cent for the Cowboys. Lockyer could be the master of his own destiny here…

The History: Played 92 (since 1980); Queensland 48, NSW 42, drawn 2.

Conclusion: The emotion of the occasion could play one of two ways. Either it drains the Maroons and they fall flat in their delivery; or else they ride it like a wave all the way to the beach and register a compelling, decisive victory.

The Blues will only be allowed to play as well as the Maroons permit them. On home soil, with so much at stake, chances are they won’t get much latitude. Maroons by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Daniel Eastwood; Video Refs – Steve Clark & Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats