Queensland coach Mal Meninga has declared the Maroons have got some catching up to do with NSW in terms of attitude in games played at ANZ Stadium.
During the run of seven straight State of Origin series wins by Queensland, there have been nine games played at ANZ Stadium. The Blues have won only four of them and Queensland five.
But NSW have won each of the past two games there – 18-8 in Game Two of the 2011 series and 16-12 in Game Two last year. The Maroons won the first and third games of both series.
The fact the Maroons led the series 1-0 going into each of those past two ANZ Stadium games could be seen as a contributor to a slight drop in intensity by them, given that they knew that even if they lost they would still have the chance to clinch the series by winning Game Three at Suncorp Stadium.
But Meninga wasn’t using any of that as an excuse. He said the Maroons had to be acutely aware that the Blues had in the past couple of years been improving wherever they played. Last year’s series was ultimately decided only by a Cooper Cronk field-goal in the 21-20 win in the decider.
“That’s the concern, that NSW have been improving everywhere,” Meninga told NRL.com. “We’re never going to be complacent. We’ll make sure our preparation’s good, and that’s the key to winning anywhere, really. But we know it’s going to be hard.
“They’ve beaten us fair and square (in Sydney) the last couple of years. They’ve done things a lot better, they’ve controlled the ball a lot better, probably out-enthused us a little bit too, you know. So I think we’ve got a bit of catching up to do at ANZ.”
The difference this time, of course, is that the series is opening with a game at ANZ Stadium on Wednesday, and Origin history proves it is critically important to win the first game if you are to win the series.
There have been 31 series played, and the team that won the first game has gone on to win 23 of them. Six times a team has come from 1-0 down to win the series, and two series have been drawn.
“We understand it’s important to win the first game,” Meninga said. “The first game is the key to everything, I think.
“History says that a 1-0 lead usually leads to a series win, so you don’t want to be trying to go against fate. Statistics suggest that if you lose the first one, you’ll struggle to win the series. Never tempt fate.”
Statistical guru David Middleton produced an interesting fact on Thursday – that Queensland would field the oldest team in Origin history on Wednesday, with an average age of close to 29.
Asked what he thought about that stat, Meninga laughed and said: “He’s good for those sort of quotes.”
Queensland superstars Johnathan Thurston, 30, Billy Slater, 29, and Cameron Smith, 29, are obviously heavy contributors to that statistic.
But when it was suggested to Meninga that it would be a moment of madness to not pick Thurston, Slater and Smith because they are all around that age, he replied: “Exactly. All the great ones, their careers go on until they are 33 or 34 anyway.”
Meninga pointed out that Queensland has been doing its succession planning, with Matt Gillett, 24, and Ben Te’o, 26, having been introduced to the squad last year and included again for this game, and Chris McQueen, 25, Josh Papalii, 21, and Daly Cherry-Evans, 24, all new to the squad.
And then there is Ben Barba, 23, who hasn’t been able to break in yet.
“Yes, you’ve got to have one eye on the future,” Meninga said. “And I think we’re doing that pretty well.”
Maroons prop David Shillington, who has started in two of his seven Origin matches and played the rest off the bench, takes the starting spot for Wednesday’s game that was vacated by the retirement of Petero Civoniceva.
Meninga is very comfortable with that changeover.
“Shillo has been in the squad for a lot of years now, and has played plenty of Tests for Aussie as well,” he said. “He’s got vast experience, you know. He’s a mature player, has captained his club, so he won’t let us down.
“It’s a great opportunity for him as a starter in Origin, to show his wares and that he’s up to starting. But he has started before, so it’s not as if it’s a gamble or anything. He’s been there, done that, understands Origin really well and has performed really well at that level.”
Finally, with the series about to begin, how is big Mal feeling?
“I’m pretty good,” he said. “We’re having a bit of fun in camp, it’s pretty relaxed. I’m optimistic, but not complacent.”