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The twists and turns of Origin continue as series rolls back up to Suncorp for decider.
In one of the more intriguing interstate series in recent years, the Rugby League world have been treated to a topsy-turvy ride indeed. After a dominant Blues win in game one, the Maroons made a mass seven changes for game two including the inclusions of Origin legends Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston who helped guide their state to a stirring come from behind victory, flipping the series on its head in the process.
After missing game one through injury, Thurston turned in one of the toughest Origin performances of his era to help setup the series decider. Unfortunately Thurston has been stripped of his farewell match with his troublesome shoulder succumbing to the brutal game two encounter, forcing him out of action for the remainder of the season.
Enter Cameron Munster, the man assigned the challenge of donning arguably the most famous of Rugby League jerseys with names such as Lewis, Walters, Lockyer and Thurston appearing above the Maroons number six throughout Origin history. The task will be made somewhat easier for Munster by the players in key positions around him. Club teammates Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater will form an all-Melbourne Storm spine with the game three debutante. Not overplaying his hand will be key for Munster. If he just plays his natural game, his tough running style will come to the fore and add a new dynamic to the Maroons left edge.
Speaking of left edges, the Maroons have been forced to promote Michael Morgan from his usual utility role to cover the injury of Darius Boyd who suffered a broken thumb in game two. Whilst it has been reported Morgan will slot straight into left centre, it wouldn't surprise at all to see him lining up on the right when play kicks off on Wednesday night. Two of his greatest clutch plays (think 2015 Grand Final and Origin two) have come from flick passes on that side of the field and planting him on the left would make that right handed flick ineffective. Will Chambers also played left centre in game one and was switched there in his last start for Melbourne.
Either way, the promotion of Morgan to the run-on side will see Ben Hunt make his debut filling the utility role off the bench. The selection appears a huge gamble with the Maroons favouring the recently dropped half over one of the form players in the competition this year in Daly Cherry-Evans. There's no doubt Hunt's running game can be electric when at his best. Probably won't get a lot of minutes, but expect him to be buzzing around the ruck looking to exploit some tired New South Wales defenders as the game wears on.
The Blues meanwhile look set to field the same seventeen men in all three games of a series for the first time since 1996. The Blues have had their injury concerns though with Dragons duo Josh Dugan and Tyson Frizell failing to finish their last club games, whilst James Tedesco and Boyd Cordner haven't laced a boot since picking up injuries in game two.
The biggest concern has been that of Cordner with the skipper racing the clock to overcome a calf injury. The strapping back-rower is tough as teak though and has a history of overcoming injuries to take his place in big matches, none more so than overcoming a broken ankle to line up in the Roosters 2013 Grand Final triumph.
There's no prize for guessing the Blues tactics in the series decider. Their big behemoths have charged through the middle third of the field for the majority of the series and will again be looking to assert their dominance there in game three. The key for them will be to not lose their way as they did in game two when they had one hand on the shield. Sticking to their game-plan under pressure and fatigue will be paramount to their chances of lifting the shield for only the second time in twelve years.
The Maroons will no doubt be buoyed by their game two victory and a parochial Suncorp Stadium crowd whilst also knowing what is coming their way. The likes of game two debutante forwards Jarrod Wallace, Coen Hess and Tim Glasby will likely grow another leg in their first Origins at Suncorp, but look for the smarts of Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk to come into play in this one. Look for them to be shifting the ball wide more to try and negate the Blues dominance through the middle with the likes of Munster, Morgan and Chambers tasked with getting the Maroons run metres up.
Last meeting: Game II 2017 - NSW 16 QLD 18
After another dominant half of football in the opening stanza, the Blues lost their way in the second half to allow an ever resilient Maroons back into the contest to record yet another Origin victory at the death.
Who to watch: After gassing himself in the opening twenty minutes of his game one debut, fiery bookend Dylan Napa was quick to learn his lesson for game two pacing himself a bit more and looked far better for it. His second stint in particular was far more impressive and whilst the Blues forwards lost their way in the second half of that match, some of the credit has to be given to Napa who got the Maroons back on the front foot and took the fight right up to his opposition pack. Whilst Napa has already played in front of his home fans at Suncorp in game one, the energy the venue produces in an Origin decider is next level again. Expect the Maroons hitman to really lift again in front of them and turn in a real barnburner in this one.
Providing his ankle is fully fit heading into this one, look for custodian James Tedesco to be lighting it up come Wednesday night. The three weeks off since game two could prove somewhat of a blessing for Tedesco who should be fresh and raring to go on a fast Suncorp Stadium track. The electric number one has been arguably the biggest attacking threat for the Blues this series, particularly when hitting inside balls through the middle off the likes of Wade Graham and Jake Trbojevic. His blistering speed is simply too much for the Maroons tiring defenders to handle and if the Blues forwards do their job in laying a dominant platform, Tedesco is capable of ripping this Origin decider to shreds.
The favourite: The potential of a farewell Johnathan Thurston game at Suncorp Stadium in a series decider had Queensland as early favourites following game two, but the loss of the great man quickly turned betting in favour of New South Wales.
My tip: Despite their game two fade-out, this is the Blues series to lose. There's no doubt in the world the Maroons game two debutantes will be better for that run and the lift the Queenslanders get from the home crowd will be huge. The loss of Thurston and the Blues forward dominance should still prove too strong though and providing they stick to their game-plan under pressure and fatigue, the Blues will reign supreme and lift the shield... Blues by 8.
1. Billy Slater 2. Valentine Holmes 3. Will Chambers 4. Michael Morgan 5. Dane Gagai 6. Cameron Munster 7. Cooper Cronk 8. Dylan Napa 9. Cameron Smith 10. Jarrod Wallace 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Matt Gillett 13. Josh Mcguire 14. Ben Hunt 15. Josh Papalii 16. Coen Hess 17. Tim Glasby
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;