Stats don't lie in Origin halves battle
Paul Gallen's said it. Johnathan Thurston's said it. And everyone either side of the Tweed - even that bloke from accounting who asked you who was playing tonight, knows it.
When it comes to the Origin arena, all eyes will be on the smallest men on the field as NSW take yet another run ending Queensland's eight series reign. Sure the big boppas will whack each other senseless, and GI and the Hayne Plane can tear the opposition apart without a moment's notice, but above all it is the halves pairings upon which the respective fortunes of NSW and Queensland lie.
In the maroon corner, weighing in at a combined 173 kilos (which doesn't include the litany of premiership rings, Dally M Medals, Golden Boots and other accolades the pair have racked up over the years) are the all-conquering Queenslanders Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk.
And in the blue corner, the challengers, punching at a combined 180 kilos (with the weight of the entire state of NSW that rests on their shoulders also not included); Blues pairing Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson.
With 39 Origins between them versus the 15 minutes Reynolds spent on the park across his two games in last year's series, the Maroons' halves pairing undoubtedly have the Blues pair beat for experience in the interstate clash. And a look at some of the key playmaking numbers from the two halves pairings suggests the NSW rookies are going to be up against it when it comes to bettering their more experienced opposites, though their running and defensive outputs are cause for optimism among long-suffering Blues fans.
Playmaking: The dynamic Dogs duo may have guided their side to the top of the NRL ladder, but their playmaking stats have taken a bump due to the fact they are a halves pairing in the truest sense of the term at club level, the exact reason Laurie Daley plumped for Reynolds and Hodkinson over the likes of Pearce and Maloney at the Roosters or Souths combo Sutton and Reynolds.
While the pair have been amongst the best in the league for try assists (Reynolds 9; Hodkinson 7) and line break assists (Reynolds 9; Hodkinson 6), their numbers are dwarfed by the efforts of their Queensland counterparts. Thurston (14) and Cronk (13) are ranked numeros uno and dos for try assists, as well as line break assists (Thurston 13; Cronk 10) - mostly due to the fact they are the best playmakers in the game, but also partly because they are the dominant ball distributors for the Cowboys and Storm respectively. The Maroons halves pairing have had their hands on the ball a whopping 298 more times (Thurston 542 possessions, Cronk 484) than the Blues' rookie combination (Reynolds 337, Hodkinson 391) and will have no hesitation in taking control at a ground that is effectively a second home for two of Queensland's favourite sons.
Running Game: When it comes to taking on the line and running the ball themselves, a facet of Thurston's game in particular that has come to the fore in plenty of clutch Origin situations since his debut in 2005, JT again leads the quartet for tries (5) and line breaks (5), though Reynolds and Hodkinson have taken the line on consistently more than their Maroons opposites. The Blues pair have run the ball on average 18 times a game for the Bulldogs this year, earning almost nine metres a run between them compared to the 16 runs a game at 7.44 metres of Thurston and Cronk. Hodkinson especially has added an extra string to his bow this year in breaking 14 tackles - double Cronk's tally of seven - and a few early runs will do any nerves the world of good in front of 52,000 Queenslanders baying for blood.
Defence: For all the talk that NSW has played best when picking a big, physical five-eighth (think Greg Bird shifting into the No. 6 in the 2007 and 2008 wins) and concerns over Reynolds as a potential liability in the defensive line, going by the numbers of 2014 suggests it's actually Thurston who is the half most likely to come up with a defensive lapse. JT has registered the most missed tackles (33) out of the playmaking quartet, and his tackle efficiency (79 per cent) is well down compared to both the Blues halves and Cronk, who all rank just over 89 per cent in pulling off a successful tackle whenever challenged by the attack. Daley has selected Knights hardman Beau Scott with the explicit intention of blunting Thurston's offensive prowess, but Scott himself has upped his running game in recent years (he's broken the line four times in 2014 and broken 21 tackles) and could prove himself a handful for the Cowboys' skipper. Reynolds meanwhile (2.7 missed tackles per NRL game) will be hard-pressed keeping the game's most destructive attacking player, Greg Inglis, quiet on his outside shoulder, though he will have Bulldogs teammate Josh Morris marking up on the Maroons leading try-scorer in a role he has handled with aplomb in the past.
Kicking: Where Queensland have dominated for much of the past eight years has been in the territory department, with Cronk and Thurston consistently outkicking the various NSW halves pairings they have done battle with over the years. Cronk again enters the Origin arena in sublime kicking touch, particularly when it comes to his long-distance game, booting 3938 metres to sit behind only Brisbane's Ben Hunt (4152m) at club level. Thurston and Hodkinson are by no means slouches in hoofing the ball downfield either, ranking eighth and ninth for kick metres respectively, but expect Hodkinson to take on the majority of the long-range kicking duties, as Reynolds has kicked 31 less times this season (69 kicks to Hodkinson's 100) for over 1200 less metres. The Bulldogs' halfback does hold an advantage over Thurston off the tee, sending them between the sticks at 83 per cent compared to Thurston's 78 per cent this season, but how often the Blues give their sharpshooter a chance to turn four points into six will depend on him matching the Queenslanders' kicking in general play.