Country v City
Caltex Park, Dubbo
In the build-up to Representative Round we seem to have avoided the usually-obligatory ruminations on whether or not this traditional pre-Origin stoush is an irrelevance that should be permanently shelved.
Which is a good thing because it saves us asking, somewhat rhetorically, whether a host of representative debutants – take promising young Panthers and City Origin custodian Matt Moylan or surprise inclusion, Titans and City rake Beau Falloon – whether they also think the fixture is irrelevant.
Or from asking what those who are in with a genuine chance of staking a claim for a sky blue jersey in a month (think Roosters and City winger Daniel Tupou and his opposite flanker, Sea Eagle Jorge Taufua) for their opinions on a chance to force their claims for higher honours.
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In fact, true to its billing as a genuine Origin trial, there are any number of players who will line up at Dubbo on Sunday who could very well play their way into State of Origin I, including the other candidates for the Blues' right wing spot – City centre Will Hopoate and Country winger and Blues incumbent James McManus.
Injuries to James Maloney and Todd Carney have thrown the race for the Blues' five-eighth position wide open. The absent John Sutton and even Kangaroos back-rower Greg Bird are names that have been tossed around but the two starting pivots here – Country's Jarrod Mullen and City's Josh Reynolds – could go a very long way towards staking a claim for a starting spot (although Reynolds could well find himself in the 17 anyway as a bench utility).
The six Blues in the Kangaroos side (the Morris twins, Paul Gallen, Greg Bird, James Tamou and Boyd Cordner), Mitchell Pearce, the injured Jarryd Hayne and probably the starting city props, Andrew Fifita and Aaron Woods, are all odds-on to take part in Origin I. Robbie Farah will play if fit but there are no guarantees there, meaning a good seven or more of the 17 NSW spots are theoretically up for grabs.
Aside from those mentioned above, forwards Tony Williams, Ryan Hoffman (City) and Sims, Beau Scott and Paul Vaughan (Country) have either been there and done it before and are playing well enough to be considered, or are likely future Blues who are banging on the door.
Although Origin selection dilemmas will continue to dominate the talking points, it's also worth mentioning that the match gives the NRL a chance to take footy to the country, and Dubbo's Caltex Park (formerly Apex Oval) drew more than 11,000 fans last time it hosted the fixture in 2006.
Watch Out Country: The City slickers boast some serious firepower up front. Demoted Test prop Andrew Fifita was devastating throughout his breakout year in 2013 and will no doubt have a point to prove following his axing from the Kangaroos side. With a few well-publicised off-field distractions and a two-week early season suspension to contend with, Fifita hasn't quite got going yet in 2014 but we all know what he's capable of and he will no doubt be looking to make an impression on NSW and Test selectors.
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Fellow bookend Aaron Woods is arguably the form prop of the competition and must have gone within a whisker of displacing James Tamou in the Test team. Woods looks in even better touch now than when he made his Origin debut last year and is short odds to retain his starting spot for the Blues. With these two carting it up the middle, Country's playmakers should have a great platform to work from.
Watch Out City: Big men with the work rates of Woods and Fifita may be hard to come by but there are several damaging players in the Country forward pack. Tariq Sims's move to the starting side to replace Trent Merrin gives him the chance to unleash his considerable aggression right from the opening whistle, and when partnered with Adam "hardest shoulders in league" Docker you can expect the two to provide some stinging hits in defence.
The other robust bodies to look out for are Canberra prop Paul Vaughan, who has just gone from strength to strength since his Round 7 2013 debut, including a potent World Cup stint with Italy, and late bench call-up Darcy Lussick. Vaughan's three tries this year are no coincidence and the blend of speed, power and agility on show when he surged over for a match-winning try against Melbourne a fortnight ago highlight why he seemed destined for higher honours from early on.
Plays To Watch: Country pivot Jarrod Mullen has arguably the most accurate long kicking game in the NRL and consistently finds the grass with his punts downfield more than any other kicker. Look for him to regularly turn around City debutant Moylan and powerful wingers Tupou and Taufua, and in so doing show NSW selectors who he will go from 'useful' to 'critical' should the handy left boot of Robbie Farah not be available for Game 1.
On the City side, look for those same two in-form wingers to venture infield searching for opportunities and take their share of hit-ups – Tupou's trampling of the Eels in Round 6 would have been a show for individual try of the year come end of season were it not for the efforts of one G Inglis last weekend, while Taufua has been making up for his late start with some powerhouse runs for Manly in recent weeks.
Where It Will Be Won: Communication and combinations. These aren't NRL teams, and as far as representative teams go, they'll be relatively low on preparation. Newcastle's halves pairing of Mullen and Tyrone Roberts will line up alongside each other for Country and are the only club combination of note in the match (and have teammates Beau Scott, James McManus and Robbie Rochow also in the 17). The City 1-6-7-9 all hail from different clubs and would have played little to no footy with each other. With the sides fairly evenly matched, the one that clicks the earliest will go a long way to taking this one out.
The History: Played 24; City 13, Country 10, drawn 1. It's been pretty tight since the 1987 inception of the contest, and the sides are actually locked on 74 tries apiece. In the past 10 encounters it's Country five, City four and one draw, with Country winning last year's Coffs Harbour fixture 12-0. In the only previous meeting at Dubbo, in 2006, Country edged City 12-10.
What Are The Odds: Country are the $2.20 outsiders with Sportsbet.com.au but have attracted the bulk of early money. Some 80 per cent of money bet so far has been on them to beat City, who are the $1.67 favourites.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Badger; Touch Judges – Nick Beashel & Shane Rehm; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Delayed, 4pm.
The Way We See It: As always, this is a tough one to call. The disruption to the Country side, which has already had four named players (Michael Gordon, Trent Merrin, Josh Dugan and original 18th man Tyson Frizell) ruled out through injury won't help. City have had their disruptions too, including the late withdrawals of Wade Graham and Trent Hodkinson. But their starting props Fifita and Woods could make a big difference, which has us leaning towards the gold and blue in a tight one – City by two points.