Series: 2018 State of Origin 2 Preview
Baby Blues look to wrap up the series in Sydney
Twelve months ago New South Wales held a 10-point lead at halftime in the second State of Origin match. Having dominated the opening 40 minutes on top of an emphatic Game One win, the path to ending Queensland's run of success appeared to be self-explanatory - run through the middle and exploit Johnathan Thurston's injured shoulder. What should have been a straight forward game plan turned into a calamity of costly errors before and during the ensuing decider - ultimately costing Laurie Daley his position as coach.
With the lessons of 2017 still to be rectified, the challenge of preventing the Maroons from striking back will be at the forefront of Brad Fittler's agenda; while for Kevin Walters and his band of anxious Queenslanders the pressure of preventing an embarrassing loss has the makings of a memorable Origin in more ways than one.
Played on a Sunday night for the first time since 2001, the effects of the shortened preparation will be unknown until after the fallout of the match. With New South Wales retaining a largely stable squad and Queensland responding with several key inclusions, the varying approaches taken by the respective states should be telling in determining whether the Blues are able to wrap up the series on home soil or if the Maroons can set up a decider back in Brisbane.
Naming a 20-man squad as a means of covering foreseeable injury and judiciary outcomes, Blues coach Brad Fittler has retained the same group of players that triumphed in Melbourne with the exception of front rower Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Sustaining a broken jaw last Friday, the absence of the Penrith enforcer momentarily created a three-way showdown between Ryan James, Matt Prior and incumbent 18th man Tariq Sims for the vacant number ten jersey. Surprising many with the decision to hand Prior an Origin debut at 31-years-old, the dual premiership winner will be eager to replicate the resurgent form shown following the Cronulla veteran's permanent move into the front row. In a vote of confidence from coach Fittler, Prior's resemblance in playing style to Campbell-Gillard was regarded as a determining factor in maintaining consistency throughout the playing group, while also signifying a major change in selecting players on the basis of form rather than reputation. Having been in a similar situation in the corresponding fixture last year, the six surviving members of the ill-fated 2017 New South Wales campaign will be intent on ensuring that if Queensland are under the pump, the home side shows the awareness to step up to deliver the knockout blow in order to prevent a decider at Suncorp a fortnight later.
Responding to the disappointment of Game One by naming two fullbacks - one in the twilight, the other in the infancy of their respective careers - Queensland will be fully aware of the stakes at play on Sunday night. With Billy Slater returning in place of injured playmaker Michael Morgan and Kalyn Ponga making his debut at the expense of Samoan representative Anthony Milford, coach Kevin Walters will be banking on a much-improved showing from his forwards in an effort to avoid the ignominy of being outmuscled by the young New South Wales pack. Despite speculation surrounding the fitness of prop Dylan Napa following an ankle injury sustained last weekend, the Roosters' prop is expected to line up for the do-or-die affair, with Newcastle-bound forward Tim Glasby on standby if required. Having played 50% of Game Two matches in Sydney during their 12 year era of dominance, a success rate of three from six should provide some cause for concern for Walters, however most recently the Maroons managed to secure a last-gasp victory at ANZ Stadium with ten of the current playing squad taking part to level the series in 2017.
Who to watch: The two series New South Wales have won in 2005 and 2014 amid Queensland's era of unprecedented dominance have been defined by performance from key individuals. In the same way Andrew Johns and Jarryd Hayne almost single-handedly led the Blues to series victories, James Maloney has a similar opportunity to forge his name into Origin folklore. As the most experienced player in Brad Fittler's ranks, the success that has followed the Penrith skipper throughout his career proved pivotal in managing the opening match in Melbourne, while enabling the younger players around him to shine. Possessing an exemplary kicking game and non-phasing resilience to move on from mistakes, the dual premiership winner will be intent on demonstrating personal development having come under fire for his role in allowing the Maroons to escape with a win twelve months ago after failing to exploit Johnathan Thurston's injured shoulder. Yet to experience the heights of winning an Origin series during his acclaimed career, Maloney looms as the man most likely to avoid a decider taking place with his performance on Sunday night.
The age-old adage ‘in your most important battle, put your last man in' can be easily dismissed as a hyperbolic sporting cliché. However, in the case of Billy Slater, there is a very real possibility that Sunday night will be the final time the superstar fullback lines up a Queensland jersey. Having turned 36 on Monday the diminutive speedster will fall a few months short of Petero Civoniceva's record for oldest Origin players, but as he has proven irrespective of age, when given an opportunity to torment the Blues, the 30-game veteran finds a way to crucify his opponents. Announcing his intentions to retire from representative football at season's end, the effects of not playing over the past month may prove costly, along with the presence of prodigious talent Kalyn Ponga. With the Newcastle whiz kid touted as the future of Queensland, Slater will be very much aware that 16 seasons as a professional takes an irreversible toll, but as he has shown in successfully making it back from two years of serious injury, the champion number one will be ready to make the most of the limited time he has left.
The favourite: Playing in front of a vocal home crowd with just one change from the side that powered to victory a fortnight ago, New South Wales are expected to finish ahead on the scoreboard at the end of 80 minutes.
My tip: The ‘long time' coming series win of 2014 may have been a temporary disruption from Queensland's dominance, but with such an enthusiastic team focussed on wrapping up the series, a New South Wales win looks to be the beginning of a successful period for the Blues. New South Wales by 14.