State of Origin: NSW Blues and Queensland Maroons gamble on game one selections
Brad Fittler (R) and Kevin Walters have taken a punt on fresh blood for Origin I. (AAP: Julian Smith)
With so many new faces, this year’s State of Origin series is widely viewed as a journey into the unknown.
And it’s easy to see why.
Under new coach Brad Fittler, New South Wales has picked 11 Origin debutants and Queensland has three fresh faces.
Like a charter boat of fishermen heading offshore into choppy waters, some first-timers will catch plenty of fish and others will be left hanging seasick over the side.
Gone from the 2017 Blues team list due to form, injury or Fittler’s salsa-dancing cultural revolution are familiar names: Ferguson, Dugan, Hayne, Brett Morris, Pearce, Woods, Peats, Fifita, Jackson, Graham and Bird.
In for the first time are Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts, Josh Addo-Carr, Nathan Cleary, Damien Cook, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Jack de Belin, Paul Vaughan, Angus Crichton and Tyrone Peachey.
Meanwhile, Queensland appear rudderless after the loss of a hamstrung Billy Slater compounded the retirement of Maroon legends Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.
The Maroons are without Origin greats Cameron Smith (R) and Johnathan Thurston. (AAP: Dave Hunt, File)
The experienced Matt Gillett is also injured. Selectors did not choose Matt Scott, Tim Glasby or Darius Boyd but welcomed back Greg Inglis, potentially the series headline if the new captain is victorious.
Queensland’s debutants are Andrew McCullough, Felise Kaufusi and Jai Arrow.
What we know is the 34 players picked are pretty much the best available in their positions on NRL club form.
What is unknown is whether the 14 debutants will perform on the Origin stage.
The key selection for Queensland is Ben Hunt at half-back. He made his Origin debut in Game Three last year off the interchange bench, a utility role he has filled four times for Australia.
Hunt has been in excellent form for the Dragons behind a strong pack this season but the jury is still out on the 28-year-old in big games after a disappointing 2015 grand final loss with the Broncos.
He does not have to be Cronk or Thurston but he does have to be good. He has to stay calm, call the shots, direct the play, kick well, control the tempo and run himself at the right moment.
As savage as it sounds, State of Origin I could make or break Hunt as the Maroons half with Michael Morgan and Daly Cherry-Evans waiting in the wings.
The Blues half is Cleary, thrown in at the deep end but mature beyond his 20 years.
Their key man though is cagey prospector James Maloney at five-eighth. He will point his team in the right direction, patiently chipping away until he sees a fleck of gold, then strike hard and fast.
It is the pistols at 10 paces duel of the three-quarters that has fans licking their lips. The speed to burn of the young Blues versus a Kangaroos-strength Maroon backline.
Flyers like Addo-Carr and Valentine Holmes will be in the blocks.
With the electrifying Roberts marking the awesome Inglis, the Kempsey cousins will never be less distant. Who will finish on top, the Roadrunner or Wile E Coyote?
Forward battle to dictate Origin I result
As always, the backs will rely on the forwards getting the upper hand first.
These two starting packs are surprisingly similar in individual styles and roles with the exception of the hookers, both on debut.
McCullough is an all-rounder, while Damien Cook, on the back of a quick play the ball, will flash past retreating defenders.
For physical intimidation, look no further than explosive big hitter Dylan Napa versus fearless rookie Campbell-Gillard. The Blues need more aggression than they mustered in last year’s decider but Queensland would not take a backward step.
And do not underestimate the impact of the bench. Sticking with their attacking mindset, the Blues bench is more mobile while the Maroons will inject power.
All that is more of what we know.
What is unknown is which rookies will handle the pace and pressure in the Origin furnace.
Who will respond by lifting to a higher level like Cameron Munster last year? Who will make a critical mistake, give away an avoidable penalty, or make a bad decision in attack or defence?
You can bet that with 14 debutants on the field, someone will slip up.
With 10 minutes to go, most Origin matches are close. When lungs are heaving, legs tiring and mind spinning, composure is king and panic fatal.
That is when experience is more valuable than last week’s yoga class.
But belief, will power and team spirit, possibly forged in a salsa-dancing bonding session, can trump the lot.
And only then, the unknowns become knowns.