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2 days ago
Blues new era presented with golden opportunity against understrength Maroons.
Game one of the 2017 State Of Origin Series will be played at the spiritual home of Origin, Suncorp Stadium and the Maroons will be looking to draw on every bit of their parochial supporter base to drive them over the line come Wednesday night.
On top of the retirement of lock forward Corey Parker from last year's series, the Maroons have been dealt multiple blows in the lead-up to the opening game with key men Greg Inglis and Matt Scott suffering season ending knee injuries. Champion five-eighth Johnathan Thurston has also been battling injury for a number of weeks and was ruled out of what would have been his 37th straight game in the Origin arena last Thursday.
Replacing such key men would always prove a challenge, but with Will Chambers, Anthony Milford and Dylan Napa entering the set-up Coach Kevin Walters has some reliable and exciting talent to work with. Chambers slotting in at left centre has proven a strong performer in his four games at this level in the past and donned the green and gold in Australia's Anzac Test win in the same position recently. Milford and Napa will make their Origin debuts and may yet prove the injection of fresh blood into an ageing Queensland squad the Maroons need.
On top of the injuries, Walters controversially overlooked Billy Slater for a return to the Origin arena as well as denying Test winger Valentine Holmes a debut game. Veteran forwards Nate Myles and Jacob Lillyman were also retained proving the long standing mantra of loyalty to the players that have done the job remains this year.
The Blues meanwhile through Coach Laurie Daley have made the call to replace long standing hooker and Vice-captain Robbie Farah with Nathan Peats in the number nine jersey. The move is seemingly the final step in pushing them into the next era after Greg Bird was dropped for game three last year and champion skipper Paul Gallen retired from representative football at the end of last year's series. The trio of Farah, Bird and Gallen were often criticised for overplaying their hand in recent years and stifling their halves attacking influence on games... enter prodigal son Mitchel Pearce.
Making his return to the Origin arena for the first time since being part of a humiliated Blues line-up that were trounced in 2015's game three decider, the more mature Pearce mounted what proved an undeniable case for a recall with a dominant opening half of the season for the Roosters. Wearing the six in his last series at this level, it's in fact been four years since he last played in the halfback role and perhaps the first time in his 15 game Origin career he will be handed full control of the running of the team.
In other changes to the Blues squad from last year's game three win, Jarryd Hayne and Brett Morris return to the fold on the left replacing Michael Jennings and the injured Josh Mansour, Matt Moylan is the man making way for Pearce in the halves, Jake Trbojevic makes his debut in place of James Tamou and most importantly, Boyd Cordner returns to the left edge after missing games two and three last year and has also been named the new Captain.
The battle of tactics should prove interesting with both teams forming some new combinations, making the fight for field position in the early exchanges as crucial as ever.
The Maroons will be looking to hold their ground through the middle so champions Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk can steer them into some dominant attacking positions. On the back of this they'll be looking to the ball-playing of Darius Boyd on the edges and some off-the-cuff magic from debutante Milford to steal the show.
It's already been well reported the Blues will switch Josh Jackson to the middle, allowing Tyson Frizell to shift to the right edge where he will be tasked with terrorising Milford with some hard charges in an attempt to unsettle the debutante early. The Blues will need to be careful when rushing him in defence though as the boom pivot has shown many times his ability to evade rushing defenders and create room on his outside with his lethal speed off the mark.
Don't be surprised if Milford isn't the only man the Blues target in the Maroons defensive line. In last year's Grand Final, the Sharks were successful largely due to their tactic of running hard lines back in behind the ruck forcing Melbourne and Queensland Captain Cameron Smith to make a whopping 73 tackles. If the Blues adopt the same tactic it will go a long way to nullifying the influence Smith has on this contest.
Last meeting: Game III 2016 - Blues 18 Maroons 14
In a dead-rubber contest that marked the Origin farewell of Paul Gallen, the Maroons looked to have a rare clean-sweep in the bag until a break in the final minute lead to a match-winner from Michael Jennings. James Maloney was named man of the match in his best game for the Blues to date.
Who to watch: Making his run-on debut for the Maroons after six previous appearances off the bench, Josh Papalii could be set to stamp himself as a genuine star in the State of Origin arena. A real rock through the middle for the Maroons in the opening two games last year, the hulking back-rower was sorely missed in their game three loss. A stellar opening half to his season this year sees him patrolling the left edge and his brute strength and footwork at the line will be sure to create plenty of headaches for the Blues defence. Has also been charged with the role of Milford's bodyguard in defence so a high tackle count wouldn't surprise.
After seven games off the pine for some mixed reviews, Andrew Fifita will also make his run-on debut in this arena. Blessed with size, brute strength, silky offloads and lateral movement that most front-rowers can only dream of, but it's perhaps the latter that has hampered his Origin performances somewhat to date. With the line-speed Queensland bring in defence, Fifita has rarely had time to skip across defenders before straightening. Therefore, the mandate is simple, run hard and straight, bend the Maroons brick wall and earn the right to showcase his attacking game when deep in Queensland territory. Came of age as a big-match player with that mindset in last year's Grand Final, but that performance is where the bar now sits at this level. Just like the Grand Final, holds the keys to Origin one in his grasp.
The favourite: It shouldn't really surprise anyone by now, despite winning 10 out of the last 11 series, Queensland go in as $2 underdogs. The OUT of Thurston means for once it makes some level of sense with New South Wales firming into $1.85 favourites.
My tip: The famous loyalty card the Maroons have lived by over the years has served them extremely well in a sustained run of success. That same loyalty was always going to be their undoing at some stage though and the Blues will never get a better chance to bring a long period of Queensland dominance to a shuddering halt then game one on Wednesday night. Against an understrength outfit, they have a forward pack to lay a dominant foundation, an in-form set of halves and big strong outside backs capable of running over the top of their opposition in the final twenty... Blues by 8.
1. Darius Boyd 2. Corey Oates 3. Will Chambers 4. Justin O'Neill 5. Dane Gagai 6. Anthony Milford 7. Cooper Cronk 8. Dylan Napa 9. Cameron Smith 10. Nate Myles 11. Josh Papalii 12. Matt Gillett 13. Josh Mcguire 14. Michael Morgan 15. Sam Thaiday 16. Aidan Guerra 17. Jacob Lillyman
1. James Tedesco 2. Brett Morris 3. Josh Dugan 4. Jarryd Hayne 5. Blake Ferguson 6. James Maloney 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. Aaron Woods 9. Nathan Peats 10. Andrew Fifita 11. Boyd Cordner 12. Josh Jackson 13. Tyson Frizell 14. David Klemmer 15. Wade Graham 16. Jake Trbojevic 17. Jack Bird
Referees: Matt Cecchin, Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor, Chris Butler; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton, Ben Galea;