Origin season. It brings out the best, and worst, in all of us. The normally friendly office banter turns from polite premiership discourse to all-out, belligerent verbal warfare depending what side of the Tweed you stand. Mate against mate becomes a sledging slugfest of epic proportions. YouTube becomes a research hub for "Best State of Origin big hits and fights" or "Mark Coyne Miracle Try". It's a time of year when normally well-mannered men and women turn into a sea of screaming lunatics wearing blue wigs, or a chorus of maroon yelling "nine in a row!".
For the players, this week is a very different experience. Huddled away in camp, the squads quietly go about their days of early swims, all-you-can-eat buffets and idle training runs. The most challenging part is a friendly wager around the putting greens. But it's the mental mind games that have started to gnaw away by now. The inner mumblings of what next Wednesday night will hold. The cauldron will become a backdrop to an incredible 100th edition of State of Origin football. No better stage for a rivalry of Shakespearian proportions. Regardless of the result, fate couldn't have set a better scene for this year's opener.
So while Laurie and Mal have hand-picked the ripest representative players, the clubs are quickly harvesting fresh, new talent for Round 11.
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The bye round is a chance for youngsters to be plucked from obscurity and fill in for the Origin anointed. The reigning premier Roosters have become the hunted this season and with James Maloney a breath away from his best and Mitchell Pearce spoiling his Blues spot with a boozy night out, the Chooks will be near full-strength. Obviously speed machines Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou will be missed as will Aiden Guerra, but the good news is the Roosters' road to recovery begins on Friday night. A blockbuster against the ladder-leading Bulldogs minus their handy halves combo of Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson is exactly what the Bondi boys need. This could also be the last time Sonny Bill Williams faces his Canterbury 'frenemies' before leaving our code yet again.
The Titans will be without Nate Myles, who'll no doubt be looking forward to going toe-to-toe with Paul Gallen again this year. The Gold Coast are also without a grounded Greg Bird against the full-strength Warriors. Meanwhile the Broncos, who usually bleed maroon players at this time of year, will only have three missing in Justin Hodges, Corey Parker and Matt Gillett, making their trip to Campbelltown a little easier against Wests Tigers.
Ricky Stuart and the Raiders are $10,000 lighter in the hip pocket after his expensive spray at the refs last Sunday. But Sticky has a decent chance to turn that frown upside down against the Cowboys. North Queensland will look completely different without arguably the best player in the world Johnathan Thurston, plus Matt Scott, Brent Tate and James Tamou. This is a chance to kick-start the Green Machine's season.
The last-placed Sharks were always going to struggle against the Bunnies no matter what happened at the Origin selection table. But without Gallen and Luke Lewis, Cronulla have a massive Monday night task against the Bunnies.
Yep, there's still plenty of interest despite the teams on 'bye' leave.