Don't be fooled by claims Maroons are Origin underdogs
After winning 11 of the past 12 State of Origin series, Queensland are back where they want to be – as underdogs.
If you listen to the narrative from north of the Tweed River, this has been the most chaotic Maroons preparation for an Origin series since Paul Vautin was forced to draft in PNG halfback Adrian Lam, Kempsey-raised Wayne Bartrim at hooker and 18-year-old Ben Ikin in 1995.
This year Queensland have been rocked by the shock representative retirement of captain, hooker, goalkicker and arguably the state's greatest player, Cameron Smith, on the eve of the Holden State of Origin series.
Smith's decision follows the representative retirement of Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk at the end of last season.
In addition, Matt Gillett is out with a neck injury, Brisbane team-mate Josh McGuire hasn't played for a month, Billy Slater missed Melbourne's match in Townsville last Friday night and Ben Hunt finished St George Illawarra's loss to Penrith on Saturday night peddling an exercise bike with his thigh heavily strapped.
However, like 1995, the Maroons still boast more State of Origin experience than NSW, who will choose 11 debutants for the opening match on June 6 at the MCG, which is expected to be watched by a crowd of more than 80,000, despite Smith's absence.
In fact, they have an even greater advantage in the experience stakes than when Vautin famously guided a group of outsiders, who still boasted 79 collective Origin games compared to 68 from Phil Gould's Blues, to a stunning 3-0 series win at the height of the Super League war.
Even without Smith (42 Origins), Thurston (37) and Cronk (22), Queensland will have 112 State of Origin caps compared to just 37 by their NSW counterparts, whose most experienced players – Boyd Cordner, James Maloney and David Klemmer – have each worn the Blues jersey nine times.
The Maroons have retained 13 of the squad which won the third and deciding match of last year's series, with coach Kevin Walters and the Queensland selectors opting against recalling Origin stalwarts Darius Boyd and Matt Scott after their recovery from injuries last season.
Greg Inglis (30 Origins) returns at left centre and has taken over the Queensland captaincy, while the other changes include Brisbane hooker Andrew McCullough and Storm Test forward Felise Kaufusi, who have previously spent time in the Maroons camp being groomed for Origin.
After rupturing his ACL in the opening game of last season for South Sydney, Inglis has gradually returned to his best, while the remainder of the Queensland backline were all members of Australia's 2017 World Cup squad.
The new Maroons halves Ben Hunt and Cameron Munster have been in good form all season, whereas rookie NSW halfback Nathan Cleary only returned from a knee injury two weeks ago and James Maloney had to overcome concerns about his defence to retain the No.6 jersey.
As Walters pointed out at the Queensland team announcement on Monday, the Maroons squad is one which officials have been preparing to ensure the state's domination of Origin since 2006 continues after the Smith-Thurston-Cronk-Slater era.
The days of Queensland's fabled loyalty, which existed out of necessity due to the state having a smaller pool of players to select from than NSW, were put to rest last season when Walters oversaw the greatest upheaval in Maroons history by making seven changes after their 28-4 loss in the opening game.
Michael Morgan can possibly be considered fortunate to have retained his place in the squad after failing to recapture his best form since returning from a groin injury earlier in the season and he will play off the bench, with Hunt winning the No.7 jersey.
However, it is the omission of players such as Newcastle sensation Kalyn Ponga and dynamic Broncos forwards Joe Ofahengaue and Jaydn Su'a, as well as veterans Boyd, Scott and Sam Thaiday, which underline the strength and depth of the Maroons squad.
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Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Holden State of Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Tickets available at NRL.com/tickets.