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All signs points to Queensland dynasty
Queensland stand on the verge of a new dynasty in State of Origin rugby league, a domination they have not experienced in almost two decades.
The Maroons claimed their first outright back-to-back series win since 1989 last year and enter the 2008 series aiming to equal the Origin record of three successive series triumphs.
Only twice in Queensland (1982-84 and 1987-89) and twice in NSW history (1992-94 and 2003-2005) have Origin teams strung together a hat-trick of series titles.
Coached by Mal Meninga, the greatest pointscorer in Origin history, the Queensland side will start favourites for another series win despite losing skipper Darren Lockyer with a knee injury for at least the opening clash next Wednesday at ANZ Stadium.
Without Lockyer, Queensland still boast one of the hottest backlines assembled with current Test stars such as fullback Billy Slater, winger Greg Inglis, centres Israel Folau and Justin Hodges and halfback Johnathan Thurston.
Even winger Brent Tate and stand-in five-eighth Karmichael Hunt have pulled on the green on gold jumper for Australia in their careers.
Former Test fullback Hunt will wear the No.6 jersey, made famous by the likes of Lockyer and Team of the Century five-eighth Wally Lewis, but has no misconception of his role in the team.
The multi-talented 21-year-old will take a backseat as the man considered the world's best halfback, Thurston, directs Queensland's play for the first time without Lockyer by his side.
"I'll just be working off JT, he's the man and he commands the ball. He'll make my job a whole lot easier," said Hunt.
"He's the number one player in the game at the moment so you wouldn't want to be over-riding his calls because nine out of 10 times they work."
Almost every Origin series in recent history begins with the ideology that NSW have the forward strength and Queensland the backline skill.
In 2008, it's different. Queensland have both.
NSW have just three current Test players in their pack - the backrow of Ryan Hoffman, Willie Mason and Paul Gallen - while hooker Danny Buderus lost his Test jumper to Smith and starting props Ben Cross and Brett White have not gone close to the green and gold.
It is Queensland's forwards, and not the high profile stars looking pretty on the flanks, that Meninga says hold the key to sustained Maroon dominance.
"Without the forwards doing their work, without their direct play up the middle, without being dominant and without getting good field position, they (the backline) may not get the opportunity to display their skills," he said.
Queensland's 13 Test stars narrowly shadows the 12 Kangaroos in the NSW side for Origin I, although the Blues have put three of them on the interchange bench in Anthony Tupou, Craig Fitzgibbon and Ben Hornby.
NSW are fielding four Origin rookies - halfback Peter Wallace, winger Anthony Quinn plus forwards Cross and Anthony Laffranchi - while Queensland have just Folau and bench prop Ben Hannant making their Maroons debuts.
Rookie NSW coach Craig Bellamy, the best NRL coach the past two years who was called in to replace Graham Murray after his twin series defeats, is not fazed by Queensland's stellar backline which contains three of his own Melbourne players.
Bellamy says, if anything, the Maroons should fear his talent-filled Blues backline which includes Test stars Mark Gasnier and Greg Bird, plus former Kangaroos Brett Stewart, Jarryd Hayne and Matt Cooper.
"We think we've got plenty of talent in our backline so hopefully they'll be a little bit concerned about us," said Bellamy.
Even though the Blues give away experience, recent history and perhaps reputation to Queensland, recalled NSW forward Fitzgibbon says there is no excuse for his side not to claim Origin redemption this year.
Overlooked for the successive series losses and with his representative career seemingly over, 30-year-old Fitzgibbon returns to the NSW side confident he can help claim another series win.
"Obviously it was hard watching them lose," said Fitzgibbon, who has not lost an Origin series in his career (2003-05).
"There's a whole heap of ego involved and you like to think you can contribute.
"I just think Queensland has been superb the last couple of years and full credit to them they played so well and deserved the series wins.
"I don't think there's too many excuses the Blues can come up with there.
"It's just so evenly matched and you can expect nothing less this series."
NSW fullback Stewart said the Blues know how important it is to avoid a hat-trick of defeats and given Origin I will be held in Sydney they must strike first and not be forced into trying to keep the series alive at Suncorp Stadium on June 11.
"That's probably the main talking point for us over the week, after losing two in a row we don't want to make it three," said Stewart.
"We have really got to get out of the blocks, that is no secret.
"It is always a little bit harder up at Suncorp and we will be looking to get out of the blocks for sure next week."