State of Origin: Queensland careers may be over if Maroons lose to New South Wales Blues
State of Origin players from both New South Wales and Queensland are adamant that there is no such thing as a dead rubber.
So what is the point of Game Three?
It’s certainly not the series decider. That happened a fortnight ago when Queensland heads were bowed after the unfamiliar experience of losing the first two games.
Blue-wigged New South Welshmen shouted “we did it” and showered themselves with cans of beer in boisterous dressing room celebrations.
What is there left to play for?
The Maroons have a powerful motive — to avoid the embarrassment of a clean sweep. The hat-trick is hard to achieve and hard to swallow if you’re on the wrong end of it.
Through their recent era of dominance, when they plundered 11 out of 12 series, the Maroons managed the whitewash only once (2010) and the Blues haven’t achieved the feat since 2000.
The Blues have won the series but will they celebrate a 3-0 whitewash in Brisbane? (AAP: David Moir)
A consolation win would restore some pride for the north and provide a springboard into 2019 with the conviction that all is not lost after the extinction of the best spine since Homo erectus — Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.
Slater will captain Queensland for the first time in his final Origin match. The electrifying Slater, widely regarded as the best full-back ever, will be given a hero’s farewell.
The Maroons will be desperate to win for Slater but their opponents won’t share the same emotion.
After years of hurting, New South Wales would love to rub Queensland’s nose in defeat and stamp the beginning of a new dynasty with a blue rinse.
With only one injury (Reagan Campbell-Gillard) and one optional change to his line-up (Tariq Sims in for Matt Prior) throughout the series, coach Brad Fittler has a Blues team unified in winning and determined to maintain the momentum.
The Origin period is always mentally draining for players. With a young squad, 12 of them on debut this series, Fittler will strive to keep them focussed and energised but calm in front of 50,000 fans baying for revenge at “The Cauldron” in Brisbane.
The Blues have shown they have the team and the spirit. But, with the series in the bag, have they got the intensity to dig deep one more time?
Blues coach Brad Fittler (R) faces the challenge of keeping his winning squad motivated. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
Queensland surely has the burning desire and but have the Maroons got the cattle?
Two of their best so far, skipper Greg Inglis and Kalyn Ponga, are out injured, as is Dylan Napa.
Their replacements are Corey Oates, Daly Cherry-Evans and Tim Glasby, with Dane Gagai switching to left centre and Ben Hunt demoted to the bench.
Big winger Oates has earned his place as a finisher and early in sets will boost the outgunned forwards. The selectors shuffled the positions of the relatively small pack but the benefit looks minimal.
Time to shine for recalled Cherry-Evans
Most contentious is the recall of Cherry-Evans in the critical position of half-back at the expense of Hunt. It will be Cherry-Evans’s first appearance since 2015 amid speculation he was on the outer.
His record stands at six Origin games, two as half and four as an interchange option. On the three occasions where he filled in for an injured Cronk Queensland lost, though that is over-simplifying the circumstances.
Cherry-Evans says he is a different, more mature player now. The Sea Eagles captain is a leader. He has the running, passing and kicking game to control the Maroons game.
Daly Cherry-Evans (C) makes a long-awaited return to Queensland’s starting line-up. (AAP: Dave Hunt)
But, at 29 years old, he only has one shot to deliver a victory.
In 2019 the half-back contenders will be lining up for the job. Michael Morgan, who was so impressive last year, will be back from injury. Ash Taylor will be a year more experienced. Hunt may have won a grand final with the Dragons.
Cronk and Thurston set the bar high for those that followed. At his first two attempts, Hunt got a pass mark until the second half of Game Two when he failed to nail the big plays.
With the series lost, Cherry-Evans has rightly been given the chance to show he can be the man for the big moments.
Hunt still has an important role as a versatile utility as he has done for the Kangaroos. Next year Morgan and Anthony Milford will be breathing down his neck.
Evans and Hunt aren’t the only Queenslanders playing for their Origin futures.
Will Chambers has underperformed for the Maroons in the 2018 State of Origin series. (AAP: Joe Castro)
Will Chambers has been well below par. Forwards Jarrod Wallace, the 32-year-old Gavin Cooper, Coen Hess and dummy half Andrew McCullough need to have more impact.
In 12 months Ponga, Matt Gillett, Joe Ofahengaue and Jaydn Su’a — among others — will be raring to go.
Individually the Blues will feel more secure. Nevertheless, a clean sweep will make it harder for the likes of Wade Graham, Ryan James, Nic Cotric and Luke Keary to oust anyone come 2019.
It’s Queensland coach Kevin Walters that has ammunition to fire.
Will he stick to the positive as he motivates his charges, reminding them they could have finished in front in Game Two and this is their chance to prove it?
Or will he put his players on notice that he’s sharpened the axe and another loss won’t be forgotten?
There may be no such thing as a dead rubber, but some Origin careers could be dead and buried after it.