Five crucial Origin I match-ups
It is time to say what most people believe is impossible. Yes, NSW can win this year's State of Origin series.
Despite them being written off by the media, critics, fans and bookmakers, I like the look of this Blues side and I certainly like how coach Ricky Stuart has prepared for the three-game series.
It has been a meticulously planned preparation and NSW will be looking for a good old-fashioned ambush next Wednesday night in Melbourne.
But to win, NSW's star players must get the better of their high-profile Queensland opponents - they must score individual victories.
Here are what I believe to be the five biggest and most crucial match-ups for Origin I.
ROBBIE FARAH v CAMERON SMITH
There has been so much written and said about Farah but I'm glad he secured the hooking spot.
His creativity and kicking game will be invaluable to NSW and he formed a strong partnership with halfback Mitchell Pearce in the City side.
Farah's form has been good for Wests Tigers without being spectacular. We need a team that can score points and Farah is a dummy half with halfback skills.
Although he mightn’t be the player directly responsible for getting us across the line, his work out of dummy half with the forward pack will be the key to getting the Maroons defence on the back foot – creating room for the halves and the speed men on the edges. It all starts at the ruck.
Smith, well, what more can you say? He is one of the finest, if not the best, hooker of the modern era. He’s arguably been the most important member of the team during their six series wins. He’ll lead the Maroons this time around and through his efforts will look to continue the dominance they’ve had over NSW in the middle of the field.
Farah v Smith will be an enthralling battle. Farah will have to be at his very best in the Origin furnace to come out on top.
TONY WILLIAMS v DAVE TAYLOR
Can you imagine the 240kgs collision here! Without doubt the two most destructive forwards in the game. The selection of Williams is a gamble though, with him having not played for just on nine weeks when he runs on to Etihad Stadium. Having said that I thought it was a necessary risk. Potentially he is a match winner, his ability to bust a defensive line with that massive frame makes him a unique X-factor the Blues have been lacking.
I just hope he’s been training as hard as the Sea Eagles say he’s been, because watching him do some work at Penrith on Monday afternoon he did look extra big. With the pace an Origin game is played at, I can only imagine Ricky Stuart getting 15-20 minutes maximum each half out of the Manly monster. Let’s hope that’s enough.
Taylor has been in grand form for Souths. He is probably playing the best football of his career. Big, fast and aggressive - Dave Taylor is made for State of Origin. This match-up will shake Etihad Stadium.
TODD CARNEY v JOHNATHAN THURSTON
Carney's performances have improved every game for Cronulla and he enters this match in sparkling form. His passing and running games are certainly back to where they were in 2010 when Carney won the Dally M Medal and guided the Sydney Roosters to the NRL grand final. I don’t know whether he’ll get the space to drift across the field that he does so successfully at club level, but he’s shown he can tear defences apart by playing direct and using that big right foot step.
Either way, Carney possess the game to be a huge threat to the Queenslanders.
I also like the fact he will link with Pearce - his good mate - again at the NSW scrum-base. The pair were magic together in 2010 at Bondi.
Thurston, the best No.7 in the game for so many years, now becomes the best five-eighth in the game. The player that asks more questions of a defensive line than any other in the competition comes into Origin in great form. Making him all the more dangerous will be his motivation to impress in Darren Lockyer’s old No.6 Maroons jumper. His desire to do everything he possibly can, with or without the ball, to get his team home is just another reason why he’s so special.
I reckon this match-up will be absolutely sensational and game-defining.
BRETT STEWART v BILLY SLATER
The Prince of Queensland against the Prince of Brookvale. Slater v Stewart ... does rugby league really get any better?
Brett Stewart deserves his place. He had some hot competition from Josh Dugan and Anthony Minichiello but the Sea Eagles' no.1 fended off the challenges and re-enters State of Origin.
I have seen Stewart make a few dashes for Manly in recent weeks and he looks to have lost none of his electric speed. Stewart can punish any side from long distance and is a wonderful support player.
Slater is a freak. There is no better. He can do it all. And what's worse for NSW, he loves to perform on the big stage.
Aside from his speed, Slater has a fabulous football brain. He is so instinctive. These two have battled in some memorable club games and grand finals over the years. Here were go again.
PAUL GALLEN v MATT SCOTT
Gallen will lead NSW from the front - that is a comforting thought. If you want anyone out in front at Origin level it would be Paul Gallen.
What a motor this bloke has!
It is hard to recall a player who can power through his work each week like Gallen. Sharks fans say he is Superman and it's kind of hard to argue. Gallen will play in the middle third again - an area where he can roll up his sleeves and rip in, just how he loves it. He won't give an inch and he won't leak a metre.
Some argue Scott is the best prop in the game, and that was certainly true last year. Hasn’t had much of a chance to back that up this year yet, having missed a good chunk of the first 10 rounds through injury. Might be a touch underdone but has been super in recent series and will again lead the Queensland pack.
The all-important battle up front could come down to which one of these two gains the ascendency
WHILE Origin will dominate headlines over the next few weeks, I want to have a quick say on expansion. It seems the NRL is looking at creating two additional teams either from south-east Queensland, central Queensland, Perth or the NSW central coast.
I have concerns though about whether the game has enough quality players to fill another two clubs. We will need to find another 50-odd first graders... do we have them? I say no.
And sucking 50 players from the system will only weaken the existing clubs.
Look, expansion will happen at some point but I just hope the commission doesn't rush into a decision.
I think the Super Rugby competition is a classic example. They just don't have the players to fill five Australian franchises and the standard of the game suffers.
Yes, there are players who would stay if there were extra teams rather than head to England, but the game needs quality. And if we cannot fill two new teams with quality, then I think expansion at this point in time would damage the game.