It’s going to be a strange feeling sitting in the stands of ANZ Stadium watching State of Origin for the first time since I retired, but I have to say I’m really looking forward to the experience. Sure, I’ll miss being out there, but there is so much to look forward to in this year’s series that it’s going to make for some great viewing.
Let’s start with Queensland.
I really like the inclusion of Chris McQueen in this Maroons squad. Their interchange bench says to me that they will play a really fast style of footy and I think being able to push Sam Thaiday or Nate Myles into the front row to keep that front row rotation going will add to that mobility in the pack which is going to be important – especially against this NSW team which I believe is the best I’ve seen in a long time. They are all in great form for their respective clubs so it is going to be an epic match-up in the forwards.
The big concern for Queensland this week has been off the field with the Ben Te’o investigation and the imminent birth of Johnathan Thurston’s first child but I can’t see that being a problem. They would have addressed that right at the start of last week and discussed how they would handle the whole situation. The guys are professional enough to acknowledge that yes, it is a distraction, but it is up to the individual how big a distraction it becomes. No doubt Ben would have broached that with the playing group right from Day One. It is important to have the best preparation heading into a big game like this and although there is a legal process going on in the meantime, I’m sure that for a week at least the guys can all put that behind them.
I’ve been particularly impressed with how Queensland has dealt with the Thurston situation knowing that JT could potentially be called away at any minute. I like the fact that Daly Cherry-Evans has been part of the squad all week. He can step straight into those shoes if something happens before kick-off. I actually trained against the side last Friday night and Daly proved to me that he will easily slot into Johnathan’s role if need be. The fact that he has been with the side for a couple of years, training with the side – he knows that role off by heart now.
I think that Queensland will look to get Greg Inglis more involved this year, which is a scary proposition for NSW given he already boasts a great record at Origin level. Obviously the more ball he gets and the earlier it is, the more damage he can create and the more opportunities he can create for the guys around him.
So what can we expect from Queensland? One thing to look for is Greg Inglis coming back through the middle of the ruck more than he has in the past, given his amazing form at the back for Souths in 2013. He has had a lot of success picking on tired defenders and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him turning up on the inside of Cooper Cronk or JT quite a bit.
Which brings me to NSW.
The big plus for the Blues is the fact that they are all in great form. There isn’t a single player in that squad that has been out of form for their respective clubs this season. That is a real confidence boost for them. If everyone is confident in the football they are playing, it tends to lead to a very strong performance.
The Blues have a few key changes this year with Jarryd Hayne at fullback and James Maloney at five eighth. Jarryd is a wonderful player at the back and a bit like Greg Inglis, he can be devastating if given early ball or broken-play situations. Once he gets going he is very hard to pull down so he will give them punch from the back.
Maloney, too, is a really tough player who loves taking the ball to the line. He and Mitchell Pearce will be very confident going into this game together.
I have no doubt the Blues have the belief to win now. Where Ricky Stuart has excelled the past two years is in getting his players to really buy into the pride he always had for the blue jersey. I’m sure Laurie has picked up on that, too. The confidence they will have taken out of last year knowing they came so close will serve them well this series.
But I’m a Queenslander and I still see them winning. I’m going to tip the Maroons by four points in what will be a grinding match.