DUAL WINNERS | For the second time in three seasons there's been a tie for the #DallyM Medal!
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It?s Origin Time and unless you?ve been hiding under a rock for the past 6 weeks you should be counting down the days til Origin I at Suncorp Stadium May 25th. Both teams have named very strong squads with the only significant injury absences being Andrew Johns, Mark O?Meley and Willie Mason for the Blues while Willie Tonga and Brent Tate are unavailable for the Maroons. And a host of talented players were overlooked which suggests we are in for a treat come Wednesday. In a special From the Couch we take an in-depth look at the players involved in Origin I.
Here?s an analysis of the players the two sides selected:
1. Anthony Minichiello ? The incumbent and most recently the Test custodian, Minichiello is the premier running fullback in the NRL and that is why he shaded the Ben Hornby for the job. Will run second man plays outside Barrett and Kimmorley regularly and be a force on the kick-returns. 2. Matt King ? despite a quiet game against the Rabbitohs the powerful centre-three-quarter turned out to be an irresistible choice on the flank for NSW. Has the size and speed to make kick-returns big metre gains for the Blues while defensively he is very strong and given he played wing last year adjusting to the position will not be a problem. Gives the team a big size advantage over the QLD wingers. 3. Matt Cooper ? after missing City-Country through injury Cooper was excellent in his past two games to secure his place in the side ahead of Ryan Cross. A brilliant broken field runner who should be utilised to great effect by Barrett drifting wide to the left. 4. Mark Gasnier ? he?s back in the side and with his considerable talent should be here to stay. Dynamic on his feet with a superb off-load, he will take some stopping if given quality ball. Defensively not as sound as Cooper meaning Shaun Berrigan could try to exploit him. 5. Luke Rooney ? another big fast winger for the Blues means the game plan will likely be to spread the ball wide and often to take advantage of the smaller QLD backs. Not a noted frequent-flyer at club level but could be asked to sail high for Kimmorley cross-kicks. 6. Trent Barrett ? Has been in remarkable form of late and it is not just his power running game that has been impressing. A gifted ballplayer with great strength and length in his passing which will allow the Blues to work the edges of the ruck and play away from the big QLD pack thus exploiting their smaller backs and running their forwards around the park more. 7. Brett Kimmorley ? has at least two games to close the door on Andrew Johns? representative career. No one can question his form so far this season (it has been stellar) but if there is one player in the NSW team with more pressure on his spot than others it is Kimmorley. That being said he is certainly up to the task, his kicking game is currently the best in the NRL and he has been slicing up defences with short balls and line breaks of his own regularly. NSW will run most of their plays through him, despite Barrett?s presence at five-eighth. 8. Luke Bailey ? has been in good form thus far this season but Origin should bring out the best in him. At club level the Dragons are deep at prop so Bailey isn?t required to play in all situations, but for the Blues (who carry no regular prop on the bench) he will play in excess of 60 minutes in much the same vein as he did in the 2003 series when he blitzed the Maroons from the bench. This time he will start and will be a standout. 9. Danny Buderus ? ?Captain Cranky? he may have been against the Roosters but he?ll slide right back into the inspirational category in this great NSW side. Has been a one man team for the Knights in recent weeks and is running from dummy half at a much higher and effective rate than in season?s past. The recent improvement in that aspect of his game might just keep the QLD team guessing a fraction longer in defence, something a good hooker must do. 10. Jason Ryles ? like Bailey has yet to fire this season and while injuries have a part to play in that NSW would gladly take a return to dominating form in Origin I. Will be asked to roll up the sleeves and batter his way through the big QLD pack and any second phase play will be a bonus, too much focus on offloading and his effectiveness in denting the line will diminish so look for a up the guts game from this great prop. 11. Nathan Hindmarsh ? has not been the be all and end all of Parramatta?s fortunes this season and while that means he isn?t in superstar form it bodes well for his Origin outlook. After wowing them in the lead up to the Origin Series last year with his all-around game he was asked to play a defensive role in the series and excelled. This time around we might see NSW coach Ricky Stuart take advantage of a fresher Hindmarsh and exploit the running game he is capable of. Mark him down as your possible Player of the Series if NSW emerge victorious. 12. Craig Fitzgibbon ? how the workhorse backrower is used in Origin I will be interesting as club and now state coach Stuart has been using him in two bursts rather than leaving him on for the full 80 minutes as we?ve become used to. Judging by the makeup of the squad Fitzgibbon could be looking at ?only? 70 minutes of action but he should deliver his usual high quality performance. 13. Ben Kennedy ? the old man of the pack is in strong form for his new club Manly, and has been picked to add some experience and starch to the NSW pack. Look for a big first 15-20 minutes from Kennedy as he?s likely to ride the pine for an extended period before being reintroduced for another flurry at the end of the game. BENCH: Andrew Ryan has been strong for the injury-depleted Dogs playing a full game almost every week, how he is used off the bench for the Blues could be to spell Kennedy in the middle stages of the game in a defensive role ... Craig Wing will be used as a spark plug off the bench most likely in the minutes leading up to halftime and just after the break, look for a dummy half run barrage during that period ... Anthony Watmough is Stuart?s impact runner off the bench and although he will not get heavy minutes his role will be to take the ball up often during his stint, NSW are counting on him to prove they don?t need a recognised prop on the bench ... the last spot in the squad went surprisingly to Steve Simpson who is the only member of the bench with any recent experience at prop and will be used to plug up the middle of the ruck with his strong and effective defence.
1. Billy Slater ? a controversial selection in some camps but the selectors are backing themselves with a team they believe can win the series and Slater is a big key to the game-plan. Coach Michael Hagan wants Slater to camp around the ruck and take advantage of the strong offloading ability of the QLD pack. Is prone to the big error but can tear any team apart with his speed. 2. Ty Williams ? the biggest bolter of either side in reality because few people expected Rhys Wesser to be dumped before the first game. Williams is one of those wingers who does nothing particularly flashy but puts himself in position to score tries and be sound defensively. He could be the heir apparent to Matt Sing as QLD?s Mr Reliable. 3. Shaun Berrigan ? Even with Slater at fullback, Berrigan is probably the biggest line breaking threat in the QLD backline because of his familiarity with Lockyer. Berrigan will likely play left centre which is Lockyer?s favourite side of the field to run second man plays and Berrigan is invariably the runner on the end of a supreme cut out pass. If at left centre he will get the tough defensive assignment on Gasnier. 4. Paul Bowman ? defensively solid and that is the main reason he?s been selected ahead of Steven Bell, Bowman will be asked to shut down the NSW three-quarters on his side of the field and he will line up outside Lockyer in defence so his role will be crucial. That being said he could be targeted by the speed of Cooper. 5. Matt Sing ? apparently wasn?t retired from representative football as we all were led to believe and has another Australian jumper in the kitbag to prove he can still cut it at the top level. Despite the height disadvantage his aerial skills will be called upon by Lockyer and Thurston kicking to his wing. 6. Darren Lockyer ? is in breathtaking form at club level and he has confirmed his status as the NRL?s best player. Owns the left hand side of the field with a bag of tricks to rival any magician but his biggest asset is the ability to play the right hand side with similar ease. How he teams with Thurston will be key to the continuity of the QLD attack, but you would expect Lockyer to remain the go-to man. 7. Johnathan Thurston ? has shaken the potential tag and become a legitimate NRL star with some scintillating form running the show in Townsville. Has freakish ball skills and actually played his best football at halfback for the Cowboys with Chris Sheppard injured, finding the right mix of possession and ball distribution is vital for his impact to be a positive one and not a negative if he fails to give Lockyer enough ball. Don?t be surprised if he is the goal kicker also. 8. Steven Price ? a shining light for the Warriors despite their mediocre win loss record. Was superb in the ANZAC Test and more than earned his spot in the run on side. His form in the last few years has been so consistent that you can only expect another great go-forward performance from the inspirational prop. 9. Cameron Smith ? was probably a tad unlucky to miss out on the ANZAC Test given his form at the time but Luke Priddis was just as worthy of selection, but Priddis isn?t playing Origin and Smith most certainly is. A do-it-all rake with a lovely left foot kick and vision out of dummy half, and his defence is second to none. If QLD win the series he is the Player of the Series smokey. 10. Petero Civoniceva ? with the retirement of Shane Webcke from rep football it is time for people to appreciate just what Civoniceva brings to the table each week, a contribution often overshadowed by the excellence of Webcke. Considering he kept his NSW counterparts Bailey and Ryles out of the run on side for the Test, it?s clear the Australian selectors know what he brings to the table and this series will highlight it again for everyone else. 11. Michael Crocker ? a loyalty selection because he was clearly retained based on his presence in last year?s team (try and tell that to Scott Prince and Rhys Wesser), but the defining reason Crocker made the side is because he lifts his game to another level on the Origin stage. His NRL form is usually good but in his five games for QLD Crocker has played out of his skin and in doing so usually gets under his oppositions. Will lack match fitness but will try and leave a mark on the game even if he is shifted to the bench for Carl Webb. 12. Brad Thorn ? one of the two New Zealand/Australian/Queensland connection in the squad but regardless of whatever controversy surrounds his selection it is a good footballing decision for the QLD side. Has returned to the NRL and Rugby League with most of his attributes still firing and is a massive presence on the field. He is a great forward of the modern game. 13. Tonie Carroll ? the second connection in the ?origin? puzzle but his form has warranted this selection (again from the footballing side of things) and he is slowly finding the running form that was his signature before he left for the UK in 2000. Tough and strong and capable of sitting the NSW runners down in a hurry. BENCH: Ben Ross is one of the two big boppers on the QLD bench, has been in good form for the Panthers but in his new role as a starter has lacked the same impact he had last season, in Origin I from the bench look for Ross to remind people of his power and size ... his partner in crime off the pine will be Carl Webb (if he doesn?t start), moving to the Cowboys has seen the former Origin forward build on the form he started to regain with the Broncos last season, is sure to bust the NSW line at least once in the series and has a great off-load ... the QLD Mr Fixit this year will again be Chris Flannery who had begun to settle in the centres for the Roosters until recently switching back into the pack, will be called on in a defensive role to spell the likes of Thorn and Carroll ... Matthew Bowen is the livewire off the bench for the Maroons and he must get some significant game time, whether he comes in to dance around the rucks or slot in on the wing or fullback he will add another frightening dimension to the QLD attack.
SO WHO TO TIP?
At the Cauldron of Lang Park, Queensland will start favourites but the gut feeling says the Blues will get away with a victory by 4 points. I expect the Queenslanders to throw everything at the Blues in the first 20 minutes and force the visitors to play catchup football which their forward bench is not suited for, Webb will probably start to add another strikeweapon to the run on side. NSW will try and slow the game down with smothering defence and will use their backline frequently to move the big Queensland forwards around and exploit the smaller backline of the Maroons. It should be a cracker!
Five Things I Think (I unashamedly borrow this idea from Peter King, the superb Sports Illustrated NFL writer who actually has ten things each week)
1. The fitness of Jason Smith and Brett Kimmorley will be the difference between simply making the Finals or going further. Smith gives the Raiders their best chance at winning a finals game since Laurie Daley did in 2000, while Kimmorley has the experience and skill to take a very deep and consistent Sharks team deep into September. 2. Only a brave tipster would count Brisbane, Cronulla, Manly, Canberra, Melbourne and North Queensland out of the Finals even after 10 Rounds, each team needs approximately 6 wins from the next 16 rounds to get 26 points and a probable semi final spot. The cut off could be even lower than that given the evenness of the competition thus far. I?ll take a stab at 23 points being the cut off this season ? so any team that gets to 22 will miss out. 3. Souths are falling back into the mire at a rapid rate and the news today that skipper Bryan Fletcher will be headed to Wigan next season doesn?t help their cause in the recruitment stakes. Fletcher is a fine player and publicly always stood up for his side no matter how dire the situation became. His departure takes a lot of appeal away from the Bunnies for next season, particularly if lock Ashley Harrison walks away from a big contract to pursue his career with another NRL club and increase his chances at a deserved Queensland State of Origin jersey. The Bunnies will sign a few name players that much is certain as money does talk, but Shaun McRae has a long winter still ahead of him before he can get too excited about the future. 4. FTC?s stab at the NSW and QLD sides for Origin I ended up with a 13/17 score for NSW (picking Simpson as a bolter mind you!) and 12/16 for QLD. Our sides as picked two weeks ago: NSW: Minichiello, Rooney, Gasnier, Cooper, Lewis, Barrett, Kimmorley; Bailey, Buderus (c), Ryles, Hindmarsh, Fitzgibbon, Hill. Bench: Wing, Tupou, Waterhouse, Simpson QLD: Wesser, Slater, Tonga, Berrigan, Sing, Lockyer (c), Prince; Price, Smith, Civoniceva, Thorn, Carroll, Johnson. Bench: Ross, Flannery, Nutley, Bowen. Note: Injury to Willie Tonga knocked him out of the equation for QLD hence the score out of 16. 5. Will you be tuning into The Footy Show tonight for the possible debut of Rebecca Wilson? It is sure to be ratings winner but long term the odds of Wilson, Sterling and Vautin on the same show for the rest of the season must be longer than Souths winning the premiership. Then again this might be one huge media beatup, either way they are doing their best to make sure this Thursday?s Footy Show is must see TV.
2005 NSC CONSISTENCY RATING - CR? - WILL BE BROKEN DOWN IN DEPTH NEXT WEEK IN A STAND ALONE ARTICLE.
From The Couch will appear on League Unlimited every second Thursday, and is archived on the Nicolson Sports Consultancy Website www.nsc.leagueunlimited.com. You can reach Warrick Nicolson via email at [email protected] and an assortment of correspondence will be featured each FTC.