The biggest game of the year – perhaps even the decade – is just hours away. Can the Blues end their drought or will Queensland's record-breaking run continue? Only time will tell, though our inside look at the statistics that matter could help identify the victors early, too.
League's wild child Josh Dugan up against arguably the greatest fullback of all-time in Billy Slater – and surprisingly the stats fall in favour of the young gun Dragons recruit. So far this season Dugan averages fewer missed tackles (0.7 versus 1.4) and more metres (a whopping 186 against 136) compared to Slater. And, even more impressively, Dugan stacked up more impressively in their meeting in Origin II, too. Last interstate clash the former Raider ran for 109 metres, made six tackle-breaks and two errors – Slater, on the other hand, ran for just 87 metres, made one tackle-break and committed four errors. Can Dugan replicate the form to give NSW a huge advantage? Worryingly for Blues fans, 'Billy The Kid' has recorded more Origin line-breaks (10) at ANZ Stadium than any other player.
It's NSW's Brett Morris and James McManus up against Queensland's Darius Boyd and Brent Tate – and the Maroons hold a sizeable advantage in experience here. On the flanks the 'green' Blues have just nine matches' experience (Morris 8, McManus 1) compared with 36 games from Tate (20) and Boyd (16). Each has individual strengths – McManus leads the try-scorers' list with 16 this NRL season; Brett Morris the most tackle-breaks of any NSW player outside of Dugan in Origin II; Tate the most backline metres in Origin II; Boyd scored two tries in Origin II and the man who'll celebrate his birthday on gameday is poised to become just the fifth player to score four tries in successive Origin fixtures. Expect second-game Blue McManus to come under examination from the cross-field kick – as will Brent Tate who has defused just one of three this Origin series.
Blues centres Michael Jennings and Josh Morris are charged with trying to keep Queensland's most dangerous outside backs quiet. Justin Hodges has already broken the second-most number of tackles for a centre this year (51) as well as six this Origin campaign, while Greg Inglis continues to consolidate his standing as the game's best player with the most metres in the NRL (2313) as well as tackle-breaks (79). Hodges will need to be watched closely from dummy-half – he averages a position-high 13.3 runs per game as well as 129.4 metres per match. Jennings, however, is no slouch – he's committed just nine missed tackles this year and has already scored 11 tries, registered 46 tackle-breaks and seven line-break assists. Plus he scored a crucial four-pointer in Game One.
The form of James Maloney and Johnathan Thurston – on paper at least – is so similar you'd need a microscope to split them. The Roosters and NSW five-eighth has seven line-breaks, nine line-breaks and nine assists this NRL season, while the Cowboys legend has seven line-breaks, eight line-break assists and 12 try assists. In Game One, Maloney (two tackle-breaks and one line-break) proved more damaging, while in Origin II Thurston (two try assists, one tackle-break and two line-break assists) reigned supreme. 'JT' requires just 12 more points to become the most prolific pointscorer in Origin, too – and he holds the record for most try assists in Origin deciders with six. Whoever dominates this individual battle will lead their state to glory… and expect both men to be targeted in defence – Thurston (49) and Maloney (43) feature prominently on the missed-tackle count in 2013.
One of the most intriguing battles sees Mitchell Pearce up against Cooper Cronk. For Pearce, by his own admission, it's his last roll of the dice at Origin level – and NSW need him to stand up and be the general Laurie Daley wants him to be. Playing in his 11th consecutive Origin fixture – a record for a Blues half – Pearce is desperate for a win. He's experienced only three, and a controlled, accurate kicking game is what's required, both from deep inside his half as well as in the attacking red zone. Cronk, meanwhile, has a similarly important role with the boot – but his creative strengths (two try assists and a line-break assist in Origin II) are what the Blues need to control most. He's second on the try assists list (with 17, two behind Rabbitoh Adam Reynolds) for a reason – watch out NSW.
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Is this the biggest of all the Blues' challenges? For Aaron Woods and James Tamou, their duel with Matthew Scott and Nate Myles in centre-field will go a long way to determining a victor. Without injured skipper Paul Gallen, NSW need metre-eaters in the middle of the field – and that job now falls at the feet of starting front-rowers Woods and Tamou. In Origin II, Scott (169m) and Myles (138m) offered much more go-forward than Gallen (124m) and Woods (36m). The biggest advantage for the Blues? Wests Tiger Woods and Cowboy Tamou have points to prove – and the crowd will be egging them on to take the game to Queensland.
Another mouth-watering battle pits the game's best rake and Queensland captain Cameron Smith up against league's second best No.9 in new Blues skipper Robbie Farah. Almost every single play starts in the hands of these two men – and both have individual motivation to finish on the winners' dais. Smith is poised to equal the record for most wins (19) at this level by an individual. If Farah reigns supreme, he'll become the first Origin captain under the current format to claim a series victory in the debut game. Much rests on their running games – Farah leads the comp for dummy-half line-breaks (five) and is just ahead on average running metres, too… but it is Smith's timing and game smarts that make him such a threat.
The battle of Nos.11-13 pits Ryan Hoffman, Luke Lewis and Greg Bird up against Chris McQueen, Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker – and recent statistics indicate it's the do-or-die showdown. In Origin I the Blues' 11, 12 and 13 ran for a total of 373 metres, limiting their opposition back-rowers to 251. It catapulted them to victory – as did Queensland's back-row metre-eating triumph (272m against 222) in Game II. The starting trio who get their team going forward will give their state a winning edge. Luke Lewis and Corey Parker, in particular, will need to be controlled – the Sharks' forward ran for 176 metres in the first Origin and is ranked fifth of all second-rowers for tackle-breaks this season; Bronco Parker, meanwhile, ran for 160 metres in the second state clash, making three tackle-breaks and popping three offloads in the process.
It's a battle of two different philosophies here: one bench a big, fearsome foursome, the other a dynamic and versatile group able to slot into most positions on the field.
For the Blues, their bench – comprising forwards Andrew Fifita, Trent Merrin, Boyd Cordner and Anthony Watmough – combines equal parts aggression and intimidation. It's a much bigger interchange than Queensland's (weighing in 11 kilograms heavier). Fifita and Merrin are charged with making inroads through the Cane Toads' guts, while Cordner and Watmough are given the task of plugging holes and creating their own, too. Fifita made 100 metres and 29 tackles in 32 minutes in Game Two. It will be interesting to see exactly how coach Laurie Daley uses Cordner, the 27th player to make his debut in a decider. There's plenty on Watmough's shoulders too – with 'Gal' gone, he's the Blues' oldest player.
Queensland's interchange – made up of young guns half Daly Cherry-Evans, back-rower Ben Te'o, utility forward Matt Gillett and enforcer Josh Papalii, all 26 or under – will look to run the Blues ragged. Gillett, in particular, will be called on to provide footwork and ball skills at the line, but he too has his limitations – in defence he has committed the most missed tackles of all players in the NRL. Expect him to be targeted by the biggest and hardest-running Blues, as will Cherry-Evans. Te'o has been solid this Origin series – and this season – and more will be required in this game, while Papalii has tasted just 11 minutes of Origin.
It'll make captivating viewing to see which bench – and which overall team strategy – dominates and propels their state to a series victory. May the best team – and the best state – win.