New South Wales v Queensland
ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Passion will amount to nothing if New South Wales aren’t able to combine attitude with execution as they desperately attempt to keep the 2012 series alive at their Homebush headquarters on Wednesday night.
Despite being dominated in key areas of game one, Queensland showed why they have been so hard to stop over the past six Origin series, weathering all the elements NSW threw at them before unleashing a late bolt of lightning to storm home and record their 50th interstate win since 1980.
That Queensland were able to triumph despite several of their stars being affected by a virus in the lead-up and also during the game speaks volumes for the enormous task the Blues face to send the series to a decider in Brisbane.
However, Sydney’s big wet has thrown them a lifeline and they’ll be happy for it to continue – they won the last encounter played in rain and on a heavy surface, ironically back in game two at ANZ Stadium last year (18-8). Omen, perhaps?
Still, they’ve lost a deal of their ‘fear factor’, with Tony Williams succumbing to a back injury in game one and sidelined for another few weeks.
However, the upside for NSW is that their halves Mitchell Pearce and Todd Carney are open to vast improvement after failing to stamp their authority three weeks ago, with Carney on debut in particular looking unsure with his service to his outside men. Coach Stuart was quick to ram his vote of confidence in Carney through the post-game ballot box, explaining that the Sharks No.6 could be forgiven for his underwhelming contribution (at least when compared to his deeds at club level that secured him his jersey) given the new environment. Blues fans hope Stuart is right. The 2010 Dally M Medallist is certainly capable of being mentioned alongside the best in the world when he nails the brief.
Meanwhile you can bet Queensland would like nothing more than to wrap up this (seventh straight) series in front of the majority NSW fan base.
Tony Williams’ exit has forced a reshuffle in the Blues ranks, with selectors deciding to bolster the pack with a worker rather than an impact player. To that end they’ve called up overdrive Panthers prop Tim Grant to make his debut, allowing captain Gallen to revert back to lock after suiting up in the front row for the past three Origins. Luke Lewis heads to the bench to accommodate Gallen’s shift.
However there’s a late scare regarding Grant, who failed to complete an opposed training session on Sunday with a hamstring twinge; Wests Tigers prop Aaron Woods has been placed on standby as cover.
Their only other change sees Manly back-rower and seven-game Blues rep Anthony Watmough return to the squad at the expense of club team-mate Jamie Buhrer.
Meanwhile Queensland were dealt a huge blow last week when workhorse second-rower Sam Thaiday ruled himself out with a shoulder injury. Dave Taylor has been promoted off the bench and will assume Thaiday’s role on the right edge of the field, with Corey Parker called into the Maroons’ squad where he will be injected off the pine.
Should NSW prevail they will get their 10th chance to win an Origin series after losing an opening game – having been successful just twice before, in 1994 and 2005.
Watch Out Blues: The scary thing for NSW is that Johnathan Thurston had little impact in their victory in game one and is certain to pose a greater threat on Wednesday night. Thurston made 50 receives but ran just three times, preferring to promote the ball to his outside men. He can ‘hoodwink’ the Blues here by having a sneaky dig after lulling them into a false sense of security with a conservative catch-and-pass game early. Thurston has made five line-breaks in the NRL; he’ll be most dangerous showing the ball on the left edge of the field, looking to sidestep the likes of Glenn Stewart and Anthony Watmough who are each missing four tackles a game in 2012, the most by back-rowers.
Queensland don’t give anything away – they have completed their sets in possession less than 80 per cent just twice in the past seven clashes – and won both those games anyway. The Blues simply can’t afford to turn over the ball in their own half.
Promoted to start, David Taylor will be a potent threat from kick-off. Whereas he has had the luxury of roaming around the field for South Sydney in 2012, Taylor will fill Thaiday’s role smashing the ball up on the right side. Expect Cooper Cronk or Billy Slater to put Taylor into at least a half gap inside the Blues’ 10 metre-zone often; from there Taylor will either pin his ears (and his coal carriage) back or else attract enough attention to offload to a support. Mitchell Pearce in particular beware!
Danger Sign: Any time the Maroons head left, given the way they isolated and confused the Blues’ right-edge defenders in game one. They’ll be looking to sew the seeds of doubt in the mind of winger Akuila Uate early; the Knights winger was prone to rush up and in and leave his opposite unmarked last game.
Watch Out Maroons: Blues offloads through the middle third can kill Queensland. Shifted to lock Paul Gallen will nudge 200 metres on the night but he’ll also promote plenty of second phase after being collared. Ditto interchange forward Trent Merrin. Gallen leads the NRL for offloads (35) while Merrin is ranked seventh (21). Other Blues who love to promote the ball include halfback Mitchell Pearce (18). The Maroons have prominent offloaders in Justin Hodges (29) and Billy Slater (24) but they inhabit the wide spaces – you have to look way down the list before finding Corey Parker and Dave Taylor who lead the way for their forwards (14).
The offload count in game two last year, won by NSW, was 31 – the most in Origin since 2007.
Expect Jarryd Hayne to be given some latitude to leave his wing and probe for holes on the right edge. Hayne’s dancing footwork will be tough to keep out and he’ll likely ‘spot’ Johnathan Thurston in the defensive line.
Danger Sign: If Michael Jennings makes a line-break early in the game. Ivan Cleary and Phil Gould can say what they want at club level but Jennings was born for Origin – he’s made five line-breaks in his past two games for the Blues.
Akuila Uate v Darius Boyd: Boyd has the bragging rights from the first game but Uate’s powerful running could be a game-breaker. Expect him to increase his involvement late in each half when the Queensland forwards tire, hitting the line at pace off a short pass at first receiver.
Robbie Farah v Cameron Smith: Farah showed a willingness to catch the Maroons napping out of dummy-half and although the opposition will be wise second time around stopping him will be another story. His hooking left boot will again be called on: it paid dividends with a try to Uate last game.
These are just the sorts of conditions Cameron Smith loves – he’ll look to isolate the marker defenders by ducking one way then firing a flat pass to a charging support across the face of the ruck. It’s another strategy to wrong-foot the opposition in the conditions.
Brett Stewart v Billy Slater: A little quiet for Manly in 2012, Stewart has a sure-footed wet-weather game and won’t have any problems stepping or accelerating in the conditions. Look for him to chime in off a Carney inside ball on the left edge.
Slater will be used as a second five-eighth, especially running out of the Maroons’ 20-metres or when a special play is needed. If the Maroons need points Slater will up his involvement. He just needs to watch his hands at the back – no doubt the Blues will test him out with some bombs.
Where It Will Be Won: Up the other end of the park – especially given the likely heavy conditions. New South Wales won the overall territory battle in game one (1574 metres to 1273 metres) but gave ground to Queensland in the kicking stakes (598 metres to 757 metres). Whichever side wins the battle of the boot will play with confidence.
When the Blues won in the wet in game two last year their game plan was simple – punt deep and often. They utilised five kickers for a total of 908 metres, gaining much better field position than the Maroons who booted 710 metres. If they can repeat that strategy here, turning around the bigger Queensland forwards often, they’ll have the fresher legs the longer the contest goes.
The History: Played 94 (since 1980); Queensland 50, NSW 42, drawn 2.
The Last Time They Met: Queensland defeated NSW 18-10 in a controversial first game of the 2012 series at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne on May 23.
The Blues got off to a dream start in the sixth minute when Maroons winger Darius Boyd spilled a Robbie Farah cross-field bomb, with Akuila Uate showing good reflexes to gather the dregs and score for an early 4-nil lead.
But that soured when Michael Jennings was sin-binned after running in from a distance to throw a punch after a flare-up midway through the first half. The Maroons were quick to capitalise during Jennings’ time off the paddock, with Boyd on the end of a slick short left-side shift to score for a 6-4 lead with 25 minutes gone. Boyd then rubbed salt into the Blues’ wounds with another all-too-easy four-pointer on the stroke of halftime, for a 12-4 lead at oranges.
However, a rare error from Billy Slater while attempting to defuse a Jarryd Hayne bomb presented Michael Jennings with a clear passage to the tryline to give the Blues hope, trailing 12-10 with 37 minutes to play.
That was snuffed out though when Greg Inglis was awarded a controversial try with eight minutes remaining, with Blues hooker Robbie Farah judged to have dislodged the ball from Inglis’ grasp over the line deliberately with his foot before the Maroons centre regathered the ball, touched down and claimed the try.
Brent Tate had one of his best games for Queensland, making 15 runs for 154 metres, with two line-breaks. Halfback Cooper Cronk directed his side around the park with distinction, kicking long and accurately and making a try assist and line-break.
The Blues were best served by skipper Paul Gallen who pounded out 230 metres with 33 tackles.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & David Abood; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
The Way We See It: If it were a dry surface Queensland would get the nod but the rain gods have been kind to NSW, with Sydney’s atrocious weather conditions playing right into their hands. Queensland will really miss Sam Thaiday’s passion and work ethic, while some of their big men are likely to struggle in the going. If the Blues keep their heads and keep things simple, they can keep the series alive. NSW by four points.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats