Well hasn’t the world of Origin been tipped upside down. Now it’s the Maroons who are behind in a series, all in a tizz hitting the panic button, making more changes than Cher in concert and trying to convince all and sundry that it’s all going to an orderly plan. Nothing to see here. Keep calm and carry on! While ex-players, the media and coaches fire pot shots at each other from every angle like a bunch of ice addicts playing paint ball. Usually that’s NSW, in this new parallel universe Origin has turned into, it’s the Blues who have named an unchanged side and all the talk out of camp is how happy and at peace the players and staff are with the rugby league world. State of Origin has been sucked through a black hole and emerged on an alternative planet, where the Bunker is revered by all never getting a decision wrong, Wayne Bennett hosts a late-night comedy talk show and Donald Trump is President of the United Sta… hang on second!!!
Loyalty is a dirty word across the northern border. For years – 11 to be exact – the term was thrown into the face of the southerners like a cream pie into a clown wearing a Blatchys Blues wig. NSW seen as constantly tinkering with a bunch of losers, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The famous QLD loyalty card has been cut up like an American Express with an expiry date 05/17, the pieces released to the raging wind. The word now unmentionable for fear of unleashing Hell, (ie Wayne Bennett taking the Maroon coaching job back) cursed like the Scottish play… you know the one. The Shakespeare one about the Scottish throne, witches and murder… Macbeth, yeah that’s it, Macbeth! Don’t mention it, don’t mention Macbeth.
After one loss, years of Maroon allegiances and faithfulness are in danger of being irreparably damaged. Alterations were anticipated but not to the level they were made. ‘Pick and Stick’ very quickly became ‘Pick and Flick’. Seven changes in all, seven, count ‘em! A few were expected, Jonathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Jarrod Wallace and Coen Hess were always going to come in with Anthony Milford, Nate Myles, Jacob Lillyman and Justin O’Neill in the crosshairs. The MILF dislocated shoulder perfectly summing up the disjointed vibes emanating out of QLD. The disarray and infighting is something never witnessed publicly in the proud state of QLD before. The QLD FOGs (Former Origin Greats) never went down this road. That was always the thing NSW did, former Blues greats eating their own. That’s why they’re known as Cockroaches or COCKs across the border.
This is a far better Maroons side and the team they should have picked for Origin I, that dire effort forcing the QLD selectors to back down and allow Kevvie Walters to have the team he originally wanted. In saying that some of the decisions are puzzling and prove the dysfunction within the Maroons inner sanctum. Sam Thaiday can rightly feel hard done by, one average game and he’s put out to pasture. The stature Thaiday holds at this level, Slammin’ Sam should have been given the opportunity to blast off the bench in Sydney. Myles and Lillyman were well past their use by date but not Thaiday. Corey Oates dropped to accommodate Kangaroo winger, Valentines Holmes is another, why wasn’t Holmes chosen in Origin I in the first place?!?
Tim Glasby’s selection was right out of left field but reiterates the power Cameron Smith has. QLD were trampled through the middle in Origin I, there is no doubt Smith knew the ruck area had to be fixed, it must be won in the modern game. When the Great Glasby’s name was called out it had one C. Smith’s stamp all over it. Accused of refereeing matches at times, Smith’s resume is growing, current jobs now held reads: player, captain, coach, referee, touch judge, RLPA board member and now state selector. If I was a betting man I’d place good money on Smith becoming the United Nation’s Secretary-General before long, maybe even by finals time.
The pregame banter has been all about the Maroons because NSW have picked an unchanged team. It’s easy to be loyal when you win and the Blues have now won the past two Origins and are in the box seat to win this series with this game being played at home in front of a – hopefully – sold out ANZ Stadium. But this game has danger writ-large for NSW. The selection of Billy Slater and the return of the King, Jonathan Thurston completely change the dynamics of this match and this series. There’s been the usual pregame drama again revolving around the great JT. Origin I it was will he play? He was never going to play in Game 1. Now he’s apparently hurt himself at training and the drama is around – drum roll please – will he play? Second verse same as the first. It’s all mind games, unfortunately the banana benders forgot they’d used this ruse before game 1, of course JT will play. If there is any doubt over Thurston we’ll know how he’s travelling on the last play of the first Maroon set when after he kicks he gets acquainted with Wade Graham’s shoulder and the ANZ turf.
If there was any complacency after the stirring and dominant victory at Suncorp, it was extinguished the millisecond the QLD side was named. JT rules the Origin arena and, along with Cameron Smith controlling the ruck, will run the show. Thurston’s willing foot soldiers follow his every command, and Smith will fire the ball JT’s way whenever he demands. Thurston always comes up with Origin plays, the brilliant pass, the show and go, the magnificent kick trapping the Blues in goal. His timing is remarkable, he always picks the right moment to lift and produce the killer play. He is a living legend. Just being surrounded by Thurston’s aura will inspire a much better performance from the Maroons. JT will also let Mitchell Pearce know he’s around and we will know after these tense 80 minutes whether Pearce really has exorcised his Origin demons.
Pearce’s short kicking game was not at its best in Origin I, a fact glossed over by the scale of the winning margin. Pearce and James Maloney need to be find that in-goal to build pressure that will mount tenfold on the Maroons if successful. This is another area where Billy Slater’s selection comes to the fore. His speed and reading of play is unrivalled, his cleaning up of kicks and getting back into the field of play is a major plus and key to avoiding deadly repeat sets. Adding Slater and Thurston reunites the Fab Four, the best spine ever assembled in rugby league history. Slater, Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Smith have done it all, their innate combinations and timing will send shudders through the Blues defence and leave Laurie Daley squirming in his seat all night long.
The Blues pack led by the best prop forward in the game Andrew Fifita (sorry Andrew but if you think you’re the ninth best, buy a new abacus brother) owned the Maroons in game 1 and it was obvious the middle third of the field had to be fixed for the Maroons to have a chance. Josh Papalii, Jarrod Wallace and Dylan Napa have a huge assignment – stop Fifita. Most of the Blues attack came off Fifita’s impression of a wrecking ball. Fifita again has the game’s outcome in his large hands. His combination of size, fancy feet and silky hands is devastating. QLD only have one option, limit his threat and they’re a massive chance. The Blues boogied with the ball in Origin I, playing a style so fast and funky it had NSW fans dancing like that daggy drunk uncle at a wedding. They hadn’t seen ball movement like this since the days Joey Johns and Freddy Fittler ruled the roost playing footy like kids in the backyard. I doubt QLD will allow this style to stay in fashion, if they do the Blues will win and could dominate Origin for the next few years.
NSW will try to replicate the quick ball movement of game 1 and will want this to be a fast match with minimal penalties. The refereeing is crucial as QLD will try to slow the ruck down and this is where Cam Smith comes to the fore. Smith reigns over the ruck like a Jedi Warrior, seemingly taking control of the referee’s minds gaining that extra second needed for the Maroons to reset their defence as he uses his unremarkable accountant’s body to somehow combat players built like gargantuan marble statues as Smith wrestles like an Olympic Greco-Roman champion! The heavy and slippery ANZ surface will aid QLD as it will slow the speed of the game. A major factor in Origin I was the unrelenting pace that the Blues lapped up and found out ageing heavy-legged Maroons. The lawn mower will be asked by NSW to have the cutters set to worm burner to ensure as quick a surface as possible, don’t be surprise to see Laurie Daley behind the wheel of the ride on. The grass and weather is a major factor in Sydney and if conditions turn dewy it favours QLD as it sedates the Blues attack and brings Thurston, Cronk and Smith’s kicking games to the fore, a huge advantage for the Maroons.
Darius Boyd playing centre, and not on the wing stokes more flames to the fire that the Maroons are confused and in a state of panic. Boyd is not a centre but does defend in the line a lot as fullback, but the concern over Dane Gagai’s defensive reads forced Walter’s hand. Gagai is brilliant with the ball but a liability without it. The Blues will try work Boyd over but Darius is one of the smartest players around, centre defending requires immaculate and immediate decision making and Boyd usually chooses the correct option. You cannot say the same thing about Jarryd Hayne and Josh Dugan for the Blues, both playing out of their preferred positions and this is an area QLD had some success in the first half of Origin I and they will target again. Cronk and Thurston will seek to bamboozle the Blues backs.
This is primed to be an absolute pearler. Two desperate sides, QLD seeking to keep their Origin dreams alive and send it to a thrilling ratings-busting decider at Suncorp. NSW aching to win this match and sew up the series at home in front of their success starved fans, and break the chains of Maroon dominance.
The Blues will start favourites to secure the win that will shoot sky blue fireworks over ANZ Stadium. QLD have in their favour four out and out champions who have given their all for the Maroon cause and will leave nothing in the tank in their efforts to take this to an epic conclusion. Has Old Father time caught up with them? Age may have wearied them but they are not done with yet. This is the last hurrah for Thurston and possibly all four of the Maroons brightest stars, they have always risen and there is no greater challenge than what presents itself on Wednesday in enemy territory.
Origin always throws up remarkable stories and Thurston, Slater, Cronk and Smith are the legends whose deeds have become folklore. NSW want to write their moment in history and begin a Blue dynasty. Fifita looking to cement his standing as the premier prop, the big game player. Mitchell Pearce seeks redemption to erase the Origin demons that haunt him and Boyd Cordner longs to lead his men to glory, every Blue blood child’s fantasy. They believe it’s their time.
State of Origin rarely follows the straight forward path, this series has many twists and turns to come. The legends are not about to fall.
It’s Queensland by 2 for me
Enjoy the footy and remember gamble responsibly. As always may the best team win and the men with the whistles leave them in their back pocket and let the champions sort it out.
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