Maroons adopt 'Mission Fifita' for game two
Kevin Walters will use last year's Sydney shutdown of New South Wales' game-one destroyer Andrew Fifita as motivation to steel his side for a desperate defensive effort to save the State of Origin series at ANZ Stadium in Sydney this Sunday night.
The Queenslanders have made minimal changes to the team beaten 22-12 in Melbourne, with the much-needed return of fullback Billy Slater and 20-year-old Kalyn Ponga replacing Anthony Milford on the interchange bench.
Fifita – who has since dedicated himself to the Tongan team – put in his best representative performance of his career in the Blues' 28-4 smashing of the Maroons at Suncorp Stadium in the opening game last year, busting their defence almost at will.
However he was muffled dramatically in the second game, won by Queensland 18-16 in Sydney, and was a shadow of his previous self in the 22-6 Maroons' victory in game three at Suncorp.
Walters, chairman of selectors Gene Miles and Darren Lockyer have stuck solid with the team beaten in game one with the traditional 'pick and stick' Queensland attitude coming to the fore.
They had limited options in the forwards with Origin and Test veteran Matt Scott ruled out with injury, and Joe Ofahengaue in the picture to debut. Although he has been picked for Tonga for Saturday's Test against Samoa at Campbelltown, Ofahengaue could be called into the Maroons side if Dylan Napa bows to an ankle injury and Tim Glasby goes onto the interchange bench.
However, it is attitude, not personnel, that will make the difference in game two according to Walters.
"If you look at the game (the Origin opener) in a smart way, we did some really good things as a team but there were also some areas where we need to get better," Walters said.
"I thought our forwards at certain times in the game were the dominant forward pack.
"We just have to get that consistency a little bit more.
"It is Origin at the end of the day and the first thing we need to get better at is our defence. We missed 55 tackles and if we do that again on Sunday we will be beaten again.
"I think they only had a couple of line breaks through our middle and we know that Tedesco, Cook and Mitchell – those three, among others – are very dangerous players.
"We just have to limit that, as we did in game two of last year's series with Andrew Fifita. He ran through us in game one but we fixed it up in game two and that has to be the mentality of this year's team as well.
"Gene, Locky and I are confident that the team that we have selected is the right one. We thought that in game one and we believe that in game two as well."
To put the Maroons' task into perspective, if the Queensland camp is aiming to repeat the big turnaround from game one last year, their challenge is measured as much by who is not wearing the maroon jersey as much as who is.
In game two last year Johnathan Thurston somehow mustered an influential 80 minutes with a bung shoulder that robbed him of the rest of his season while Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk were at their best. Plus Michael Morgan was in the middle of a purple patch of career-best form.
Captain Smith's farewell performance in the series-decider in Brisbane, won 22-6 by the Maroons, is rated as his greatest ever for Queensland.
All four are missing this time.
The Maroons certainly need more from their starting front-rowers to achieve Walters' mission. Napa is desperate to play but has to run with more aggression if gets onto the field and be on target with his big hitting in defence.
Wallace was targeted by critics for his game-one performance, having carried the ball just five times for less than 30 metres of go-forward. But defensively he was very good and did things off the ball that were not noticed by all.
"There was some criticism around Jarrod Wallace which I thought was a bit unfair," Walters said.
"I mean he only had the five carries and he needs to do more there but defensively he was really good. I expect all of our players to improve and we have to improve if we want to challenge NSW."
Miles added: "If our front-rowers don't play well, we won't win. Jarrod gets a second chance; he went out a couple of nights after Origin and played the house down for the Titans. Let's just hope he can repeat that performance because that is what we are expecting of him.
"If Napa doesn't play we'll certainly miss his aggression. You want to throw a little bit of fear into the NSW forward pack. "
Slater's inclusion is the greatest news for Queensland. His experience, impact and talk from the back has the potential to be a Thurston-type influence on the Maroons team.
"Billy Slater coming into the side I think he is going to help to everyone, including our halves hooker and forward pack," said Walters.
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