The colossal gulf left by Queensland's 'big four' of Cronk, Thurston, Smith and Slater
For the first time in a generation, Queensland will head into an Origin series with none of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Johnathan Thurston or Billy Slater in the starting side.
June 25, game two of the 2003 series, was the last time a Maroons team featured none of the "big four" that have dominated the Blues over the past 12 years.
The halves that day were Ben Ikin and Shaun Berrigan, with Mick Crocker in the No.9 jersey and Darren Lockyer at fullback. The Blues won 27-4 with the likes of Andrew Johns and Danny Buderus pulling the strings.
Smith made his debut three weeks later, scoring a try in a huge 36-6 dead-rubber win. Although the Blues would go on to win Smith's first two full series in 2004 and '05, the groundwork was being laid for easily the most dominant period in Holden State of Origin history as Slater made his debut one game later at the start of the 2004 series and Thurston in game one the year after.
The all-conquering Queensland spine of Smith, Thurston, Lockyer and Billy Slater won six straight series; Cooper Cronk took over from Lockyer in 2012 (already with six Origins as a utility under his belt) and the Maroons didn't skip a beat, winning five of the next six series. The sole loss came in 2014 when Cronk broke his arm early in game one and missed game two as the Blues snatched a drought-breaking series win before Cronk's return helped inspire a huge 32-8 triumph.
Now, a new Origin era is upon us. Slater's final series will start with him missing game one with a hamstring injury. Queensland's spine – barring further injuries – will boast just 10 caps and eight of those through Michael Morgan, shuffled into fullback from the bench once Slater pulled out, in a position where he is familiar at club level but one he has never filled in Origin.
Cameron Munster and Ben Hunt only made their Origin debuts in game three last year. Hooker Andrew McCullough has 225 NRL caps but is making his first foray into the senior representative ranks.
NRL.com Stats waded through the archives to examine just how dominant the Smith-Thurston-Cronk-Slater combination has been over the past decade and the numbers are stark.
Match: Blues vs Maroons
Venue: Melbourne Cricket Ground
- Nine Network
Smith averages 40 tackles and 108 touches per game across a glittering 42-match career. Adding their four averages together, you get over 1.4 try assists and almost 1.3 forced drop-outs per game. The quartet accounts for a whopping 567 kick metres per Origin.
While most of the kicking came from Thurston and Cronk, Smith still booted 146 metres per match and the raw metres don't account for the intelligence and precision behind just about every kick Smith has put in through his career.
Across their four Origin careers they have had 235 ball-touches in try-scoring plays. Obviously, Smith touches more often than not from dummy half (95 times in try-scoring plays) but Thurston (74), Slater (34) and Cronk (32) have also handled plenty in the lead-up to Maroons tries over their careers.
All up this equates to 1.69 touches from the trio for every try Queensland has scored when they play; every one of those silky passes, deftly held-up short balls, bullet cut-pout passes, neat grubber kicks, towering corner bombs, pinpoint cross-field banana kicks or athletic groundings will fall to a relative Origin rookie to attempt this series.
Comparing the replacements' 2018 club form to the Origin careers of their all-time great predecessors makes for an imperfect comparison at best but out of interest, there is unsurprisingly a big gap between what Munster, Hunt and McCullough have done this year compared to the Queensland careers of Smith, Cronk, Slater and Thurston.
The new brigade average a combined 2.6 try assists per weekend or 29 assists in 45 appearances (Munster 10, Hunt 8, Morgan 8, McCullough 3), 568 kick metres (mostly from Hunt) and just below one forced drop-out per game (Hunt 8, Munster 3, Morgan and McCullough both 2) this season. They have a combined 2463 touches this year (1017 of those from McCullough) which equates to just under 55 touches per player per match. Running the ball the four have accrued 98 busts and average 64 metres per player per match.
All up their club form is pretty handy – Munster and Hunt are close to the two form players in the Telstra Premiership in their positions while McCullough has also done a great job, even if his running game is less spectacular than some of his rivals. Morgan's numbers are also pretty handy given the Cowboys' woes although his running game hasn't been at its most dominant.
All up, there is a monumental gulf of experience missing from this Queensland team compared to the ones that dominated the past 12 years of Origin and how they handle that on Wednesday night will be fascinating.
Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Bronze tickets available from $49 here.