State of Origin III preview

Queensland Maroons v NSW Blues
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Wednesday 8.10pm

It’s been a comparatively cordial and respectful build-up from both camps but make no mistake: rugby league civil war will erupt when the most important game in Origin history kicks off on Wednesday night.

Coaches Mal Meninga and Ricky Stuart have been more concerned with catching the latest injury prognoses on their injured stars than they have throwing barbs at one another. But that doesn’t mean an undercurrent of tension doesn’t exist…  

The task and the prize for the Blues is to absorb the immense pressure of both the opposition and the majority Queensland crowd, replicate their grit and flair from game two and commence a winning series sequence of their own after six excruciatingly long mid-year representative periods of Maroons dominance. For the Maroons it is to feed off their passionate fans in the cauldron atmosphere, play to their tried-and-true strengths and deliver state hero Petero Civoniceva a befitting farewell – a seventh straight series – in his 33rd and final Origin game.

Also, Queensland know that should they carve another notch in their record it would make it even tougher for New South Wales to wrest back the crown next year, given their proximity to success over the past six weeks.

Certainly NSW have the job ahead: there have been seven deciders played at Suncorp Stadium – the Blues have won just two.

The Teams: Although Billy Slater’s absence is a blow to Queensland’s overall strike-power they’ll be just as potent with Greg Inglis wearing the No.1. Overlooked to a degree is Sam Thaiday’s return in the second row after he missed Origin II with a shoulder complaint; the Broncos captain takes Dave Taylor’s place in the starting side – with the out-of-favour colossus jettisoned altogether in favour of Brisbane hard man Ben Te’o who will make his Origin debut from the bench. Ashley Harrison’s broken toe sees Corey Parker start at lock.

Meanwhile Akuila Uate’s diminished confidence sees Brett Morris recalled on the NSW left flank, with Beau Scott filling in for Glenn Stewart. Tony Williams, who missed Origin II with a back ailment, returns on the bench. The inclusion of Williams at the expense of Trent Merrin reveals Stuart believes attack will carry the day.

Watch Out Maroons: If NSW are allowed to dictate an upbeat pace, Queensland could be in deep trouble. In game one the mobile Blues forwards dominated the fast-play-the-ball count 27-17; in game two they grappled out a 22-16 advantage. This allowed the Blues’ forwards to make huge inroads off Robbie Farah at dummy-half, aiming up at the retreating, not-yet-set Maroons defence. NSW made 19 ruck runs for almost double the territory of Queensland’s 12 ruck runs. The Maroons’ mission will be to walk the fine line between lingering in the tackle and testing the referees’ patience. At home they may count on a second more latitude every tackle, but regardless they’ll need to do better in the wrestle.

Queensland need to keep their errors to a minimum and do more with the ball in hand. They dominated possession (53% to 47%) and territory (1590 metres to 1376 metres) but squandered that advantage with 13 errors that cost them a whopping 29 unused plays (to NSW’s eight).

By calling on Brett Morris Ricky Stuart has signalled his intent to run Queensland ragged – both NSW wingers Morris and Jarryd Hayne are currently specialist fullbacks who are the most prolific metre-eaters in their position in the NRL. Plus, they rank second and fourth for average kick-return metres (Morris 13 metres a carry, Hayne 12).    

Danger Sign: Blues rake Farah cannot be allowed to pick up where he left off in game two, when he made a telling contribution from dummy-half. Aside from his record 63 tackles Farah splintered the Maroons up the guts often, in the first half in particular, to lay a confident platform.   

Watch Out Blues: Halfback Mitchell Pearce got away with it last game because of the never-say-die defence of his team-mates but if he continues to boot down the throat of the Queensland fullback it’s just a matter of time before the Maroons run riot. Queensland made a whopping 273 metres from kick returns three weeks ago, compared to the Blues’ measly 101 metres. On one occasion, early in a tackle count and with both Queensland wingers up in the defensive line, Pearce opted to clear the ball from his own 30-metre line – but punted straight to Billy Slater 35 metres from the Queensland line. This game Greg Inglis wears the No.1 – and he is making the most metres per kick return in the NRL (14). Pearce needs to weigh up the correct option in the blink of an eye and deliver. Or else.

Queensland totally dominated NSW in building pressure last game. The Blues owed their victory to two long-range tries early in the second half and some water-tight defence during an enthralling back end – but they simply can’t afford to allow the Maroons to hem them in their in-goal and force myriad line-dropouts, as they did in the closing quarter last game. Queensland forced six restarts in game two; NSW didn’t manage one.

Danger Sign: If the Maroons start their sets 20 or more metres out from their try line often, the Blues will find it hard to keep them off the scoreboard – no matter how hard they defend.

Sam Thaiday v Tony Williams: The sparks will fly when these guys clash on the same edge of the field. Thaiday’s work rate was missed last game; he averages almost 100 metres a match, with 13 hit-ups and 33 tackles. He will look to test out T-Rex’s defence given he’s missing four tackles a game in the NRL. Big Sam will also be a threat hitting, spinning and offloading. Meanwhile, impact weapon Williams is averaging nearly nine tackle-breaks a game for Manly – and he brushed off 10 Maroons in just nine runs in game one! If he gets up some momentum he could single-handedly steal the series in one explosive 20-minute burst.

Petero Civoniceva v Tim Grant: Civoniceva will be out to remind everyone, including former team-mate Grant, just what it means to play front row in Origin. He made 14 hit-ups for 106 metres with 21 tackles in just 38 minutes last game. Expect him to go out with a bang in front of his home fans. Grant and Blues team-mate James Tamou average a combined 298 metres per game in the NRL but were outshone by Civoniceva amd Matt Scott in Sydney, with the Maroons bookends combining for 265 metres to the NSW pair’s 144 metres. But Grant will lift a gear here – he averages the most hit-ups by a prop in the NRL (17.1).  

Justin Hodges v Michael Jennings: Hodges will give the Maroons forwards a welcome breather carting the ball up from dummy-half out wide. No player from either team has made more than his 16 dummy-half runs in this series, and he’ll ask plenty of questions of the NSW left-edge defence should they offer a staggered line. Meanwhile Michael Jennings has made five line-breaks in his past three Origin games and although kept quiet last match he looms as the Blue most likely to split the Maroons open given even an inch of room.

Where It Will Be Won: Not where, when – in the first half. That’s because NSW has not been outscored in the past six second halves of Origin football, ‘winning’ five times and drawing the other occasion (game one this year). That looms as a major concern for Maroons coach Mal Meninga if the Blues are ahead at halftime or trailing by just a few points. Conversely, NSW can’t afford to give Queensland too much head start: the average advantage they’ve gained in second halves in that time was just four points. History shows that in the 15 deciders played so far, the team leading at half-time has lost on just two occasions (’82 and ’08) – with the Maroons boasting a 6-0 record when leading at the break (NSW 4-2).

The History: Played 95 (since 1980); Queensland 50, NSW 43, drawn 2. There have been 15 deciders overall – with NSW winning four times (Queensland nine wins and two draws to retain the shield.) Should the outcome be as close as many predict it will be the first time since 1999 that all three matches in an Origin series have been decided by single figures.

The Last Time They Met: The Blues held on to record a gutsy 16-12 win over the Maroons in game two at ANZ Stadium on June 13.

In front of the third-largest Origin crowd on record (83,110), NSW drew first blood when Brett Stewart slid over on the right fringe for a 4-nil lead after 25 minutes. The home side looked like taking that advantage to halftime before a horror mix-up 90 seconds from the break: Akuila Uate inexplicably allowed a Cooper Cronk bomb to bounce 10 metres out from the NSW goal line, with Ashley Harrison tipping the ball on to Ben Hannant who crashed over by the left upright for a 6-4 Maroons lead.

A Todd Carney penalty goal drew the sides level three minutes after the resumption of play before the Blues five-eighth engineered Brett Stewart’s second try of the evening. Carney sidestepped and broke through Maroons lock Ashley Harrison before delivering to his fullback who raced 50 metres to cross under the posts. That made it 12-6 with 35 minutes remaining.

Jarryd Hayne fashioned the game’s deciding play two minutes later: fielding a rushed Cameron Smith clearing kick, Hayne cut a swathe through the ruck in a jinking run towards the right fringe. He looked to burst through the last line of defence but lost control of the football – nevertheless he managed to boot it ahead before it touched the ground. Josh Morris gathered up the dribbling Steeden and raced 40 metres to extend the lead to 16-6.

Greg Inglis got the Maroons back into the match in the 63rd minute, with Darius Boyd batting back a Johnathan Thurston cross-field bomb for his team-mate to cross next to the left corner post. Thurston’s conversion bridged the gap to four points.

Despite repeated poundings of the NSW goal line over the closing quarter, the Blues held on for one of their greatest victories.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & David Abood; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: The celebrations that accompanied the Blues’ win in game two did not sit easily with us. On reflection NSW scored two breakaway tries, something that is unlikely to occur again this series. And their inability to build pressure was alarming. It will be a victory for the ages if they can beat the Maroons on their own turf and put a red line through Queensland’s six-year dominance. We’ve got it right two from two so far this series, selecting Queensland to win by eight points in game one and NSW by four points in game two. But we’re back in the Maroons’ camp for this one. Queensland by 10 points.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats