Greg Inglis and Boyd Cordner will lead their teams out at the MGC for tonight’s series opener. (AAP Image: Julian Smith)
There is a change coming in the State of Origin landscape.
The all-conquering Queensland Maroons side of the past decade is barely recognisable this time around after key retirements and a spate of last-minute injuries have thrown Kevin Walter’s plans into chaos.
Meanwhile cautious, justifiable optimism radiates from a Blues side that have opted for a total clean-out in both philosophy and personnel.
Thrown together into the unfamiliar surrounds of the MCG and you get a game one that is shaping up to be the most unpredictable in years.
We run the rule over the key areas that will determine how Origin I will play out.
End of an era
Cooper Cronk. Johnathan Thurston. Cam Smith. And now — at least for Origin I — Billy Slater.
Having to deal with the retirement of two Origin legends is bad enough. Now Queensland will have to do it without four of its superstars for the first time in 15 years after Smith’s sensational retirement last month and Slater’s 11th hour withdrawal.
Walters will still be able to call upon Queensland legend Greg Inglis in the backs but the absence of Smith — a player Inglis described on Monday as “one of the best leaders Australia has ever seen in the sporting arena” — will be keenly felt around camp.
Fortunately for the Maroons, Andrew McCullough is a ready-made replacement at hooker.
With 225 appearances for the Broncos to his name, the Dalby product is the most experienced NRL player to make his Origin bow and as a frequent visitor to camp in previous years, he should be ready to finally make his Maroons debut.
Another thing McCullough has in his favour is that he will go directly up against a fellow debutant in Rabbitohs rake Damien Cook. How both players adapt to the rigours of Origin football will go some way to determining the series champion.
Halves the battle
The Blues are not shy in pinning their hopes on any one player, ordaining plenty of false messiah’s over the years in the process — particularly at half-back — but in Nathan Cleary they may well have their rock on which to build Brad Fittler’s promised dynasty.
The youngest Blues half-back since Mitchell Pearce, Cleary has all the tools at his disposal to excel on this stage and will look to bring his fine club form to Origin, alongside James Maloney.
If the two Panthers can release the blisteringly quick back five of Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts, James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic and Josh Addo-Carr — probably the fastest backline in Origin history — Queensland can expect to have a rough night.
Multiple late injuries in the backline for the Maroons have only added to their problems and how Kevin Walters shuffles his pack to compensate will determine the eventual winner — or the overall winning margin.
Where’s the kicker?
Walters confirmed in Monday’s media conference that Valentine Holmes will be given the kicking duties for the Maroons — despite not being number one choice at Cronulla and only having kicked 23 NRL goals in his career, albeit at a serviceable conversion rate of 72 per cent.
Recent history underlines the importance of a good goalkicker — in each of the past six series, one game has been determined by a single goal or less, with Queensland coming out on top on five of those occasions.
Brad Fittler has no such problems with incumbent James Maloney kicking 44 goals this season for the Panthers at a conversion rate of just over 84 per cent and has an Origin success rate of 79 per cent from 19 attempts.
So much focus will centre on Gerard Sutton and Ashley Klein at the MCG as they are tasked with bringing the NRL’s penalty crackdown to the traditionally liberal judicial theatre of State of Origin.
Whether you think the crackdown is good, bad or downright ugly, the NRL has said the whistles would continue to sound — including during Origin — prompting both coaches to call on refereeing assistance in camp during the week.
“We expect the referees to be no different to what they have been doing,” Walters said on Monday.
“Our team needs to be disciplined from Queensland’s point of view. If you’re not disciplined, you don’t win Origin.”
Brad Fittler went further, saying the way the referees adjudicated the match was “irrelevant” but that he expected his players to be disciplined.
“We ask our players to be disciplined, that’s why they’re at this level, to be able to show discipline under fatigue and when there’s pressure on,” he said.
Origin I teams:
|James Tedesco||1/14||Michael Morgan|
|Tom Trbojevic||2||Valentine Holmes|
|Latrell Mitchell||3||Will Chambers|
|James Roberts||4||Greg Inglis (c)|
|Josh Addo-Carr||5||Dane Gagai|
|James Maloney||6||Cameron Munster|
|Nathan Cleary||7||Ben Hunt|
|David Klemmer||8||Dylan Napa|
|Damien Cook||9||Andrew McCullough|
|Reagan Campbell-Gillard||10||Jarrod Wallace|
|Boyd Cordner (c)||11||Gavin Cooper|
|Tyson Frizell||12||Felise Kaufusi|
|Jack De Belin||13||Josh McGuire|
|Paul Vaughan||14/19||Anthony Milford|
|Jake Trbojevic||15||Josh Papalii|
|Angus Crichton||16||Coen Hess|
|Tyrone Peachey||17||Jai Arrow|
With all the changes in personnel, this game could either be desperately tight or blow out into an unprecedented slug-fest.
The Blues are heavy favourites despite their rookie line-up and should win by at least 10 — particularly given the carnage created by Queensland’s late injuries. But never rule out this Queensland side and do not be surprised if the Maroons pull off a shock victory.