It’s just a few hours before kick-off in State of Origin One for 2016 and nobody – including experts, punters, players or fans – really has any idea who will win. Blues fans say New South Wales, Queensland fans say the Maroons but it’s all blind loyalty.
Even the betting agencies can barely split the two teams with NSW at home the slightest of favourites.
It always has this feeling of the unknown before the first game of the series.
What we do know now is that Cooper Cronk is fit to play and will wear the Number 7 for the Maroons. We also know that last year Cronk kicked the field goal that won the first Origin game of 2015 11-10 at the Olympic Stadium or ANZ.
That was an improvement on the Maroons below par results at Sydney’s ANZ – only two wins out of six at the venue over the last five years.
We also know that Cronk was out injured in SOO 2 last year when NSW won 26-18 at the MCG.
The first two games, both close affairs, have been overlooked.
On the other hand, much has been made of the Maroons thrashing the Blues 52-6 in the extraordinary SOO 3 decider in Brisbane last year.
That nightmare forced NSW to make changes.
The new half-back / five-eighth pairing of Adam Reynolds’ kicking and James Maloney’s running carries the weight of hope and expectation that has been dashed by their opposite numbers Cronk and Johnathon Thurston so many times. All four players are in excellent NRL form but the Queensland pair are proven Origin champions.
In fact the Queensland 17 are proven champions. Half the team are over 30 years old but all are in top form at club level. One exception is Nate Myles but in recent years that hasn’t stopped Myles producing sterling efforts for the Maroons. It is true though that he is on thin ice if Queensland lose.
Queensland’s pick and stick philosophy has honed an era-dominating understanding and spirit laced with Bronco, Cowboy and Storm combinations.
The Queensland left edge attack looks red-hot: Thurston-Inglis- Boyd- Oates. Their speed, power and precision demands the football.
On debut at right centre the milder-mannered Justin O’Neill brings speed to the position but can never replace the agressive, niggling, intimidating Justin Hodges, a thorn in any opponent’s side but now retired. Thrown together for the first time, O’Neill and Dane Gagai’s defence on the right hand side will be thoroughly tested by Maloney and Michael Jennings.
The Blues revolution at the selection table has produced a brand new backline bar the centres – new halves, new wingers in Josh Mansour and Blake Ferguson, and a new fullback in Matt Moylan.
The injured Josh Dugan, a true competitor, will be missed. I would have kept Dugan at fullback rather than centre with Moylan on the bench but that’s academic now.
The Blues have turned over their back-row forwards. It doesn’t look that different but it’s certainly capable with Boyd Cordner, Josh Jackson and Greg Bird who was suspended during Origin last year.
The Maroons boast a near-Kangaroos pack from the recent Anzac Test (Matt Scott, Cameron Smith, Matt Gillett, Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker, Josh McGuire, Josh Papalii) but fellow-Kangaroos Paul Gallen and James Tamou are their equal. In fact every forward in both packs and benches has represented Australia.
For all the quality of the starting thirteens, it could easily be the benches who decide this clash and it could easily come down to the last 15 minutes when it is won and lost.
Under the 8-interchange rule this season in the NRL, fresh legs and speed have been able to exploit tiring players and score late tries.
Every player says an Origin game is faster than anything they’ve played. It’s also physically draining as punishing hits take their toll and injuries are harder to cover.
The Blues are expecting their bench forwards, Tamou, David Klemmer and Andrew Fifita all of them big men, to have a major impact. Fifita in particular could be the wild card that seizes the game or blows it. His elusive running and offloading skills can make inroads and create opportunities. On the other hand, he takes risks, makes errors and gives away penalties.
The Maroon bench forwards Josh McGuire, Aidan Geurra and Josh Papalii are smaller but mobile with a high work rate. Papalii can be very dangerous against tiring players.
And then there’s the jokers in the pack.
The utility players on the bench. Michael Morgan vs Dylan Walker.
Both can play multiple positions in the backline but Morgan is the better five-eighth and has the more robust build to fill in at dummy half or lock if required. Morgan can also slot in alongside Cowboys’ teammate Thurston to create havoc just before half-time or late in the game.
One more name to throw into the last 15 minutes. NSW fullback Matt Moylan will be tested with the boot as often as possible by Cronk and Thurston but if he’s still got the legs late in the game, he will be a real threat.
So who’s going to win? Who knows!
My guess: A field goal in the last minute wins it for Queensland.