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With Round 13 of the NRL now complete, the eyes of the footballing world will be turned upon State of Origin One at Suncorp Stadium Wednesday night.
After two months of media buildup (some stories bordering on the comical in authenticity) and a full week of camp, the NSW Wizard Blues will head to ?The Cauldron? with one goal in mind ? end Queensland?s controversial hold of the Origin Shield.
Even though both teams are playing for the Origin Shield, the real prize the Blues are after is the respect gained from a gutsy victory. Recent NSW sides have been labeled as teams full of style rather than substance and this translates to the bookmakers installing the Blues as favourites as a result. Not this year.
NSW coach Phil Gould, love him or hate him, IS the right man for the job. Don?t think for a second the media hysteria surrounding Gould and Andrew Johns wasn?t in some part orchestrated by the media savvy coach. Even if he doesn?t particularly like some News Limited journalists, he still utilized their pages to get the Blues firmly entrenched as underdogs for the series.
The Johns issue is simply Gould pushing ?Joeys? buttons with the combination sequence Gould believes will win the Origin Series for NSW. Make no mistake, Johns was upset by the tact used by Gould, but the best player in the game also knows he has yet to ?dominate? at Origin level. And as such, Johns will follow Gould?s game plan to the letter.
For Johns, leading NSW to victory accomplishes two things. One, it will help him achieve what he has openly called his last frontier in football, and two, he can prove to Gould that his commitment to the Blues is second to none. Gould of course is revving up his linchpin for one single purpose ? to get Johns playing at the level that will confirm his status as the game?s best.
Queensland players openly expressed their nonchalant attitude to the Johns-Gould circus, and although clearly ready for the series, they will anticipate the ?feud? firing up Johns. Regardless of what Gorden Tallis may say about the issue, the Maroons would have preferred a far less intense Johns playing than the one Gould has helped create.
However, while Johns is pivotal to any success the Blues may have, Gould is pulling a Queensland on Queensland at the selection table. His hand was forced when Trent Barrett, Scott Hill, and David Peachey either succumbed to injury, lack of match fitness or poor form in the lead up to Origin One, and he is taking arguably the grittiest NSW side into battle he has in his current tenure as head coach. Shaun Timmins is no Laurie Daley or Brad Fittler but he is not in the side to be. Anthony Minichiello is 100% effort, 100% of the time, and his no-nonsense approach appeals to the makeup of the side. Bolter Phil Bailey has shed his pretty boy tag with his selection, as it is clear his hard running and committed defence has forced the NSW Selection committee to take notice. These three players particularly show that Gould is not going to carry ANY player into Origin if they are not prepared to work hard for the NSW jumper.
In recent times, there have been players in the side who lacked the necessary intensity to make the step up from club football to state level. Without genuine emotion in Origin, you are a passenger ? plain and simple.
Queensland have excelled in picking the right players for Origin football, they resist the urge to pick players based on club dominance over Origin suitability. This is indeed a harsh method but when you consider the Cane Toads still have the Origin Shield ? it is obviously the right strategy.
Canberra?s Clinton Schifcofske and Penrith?s Rhys Wesser are without doubt two of the form players in the NRL, however Darren Lockyer is simply the best at his position. He was never going to be moved out of position and full credit must go to Wayne Bennett for explaining the selection decisions to Schifcofske especially. While some people may call for Gould to do the same with Braith Anasta, but consider this: Schifcofske has been outstanding for the Raiders week in week out, while Anasta has by his own admission failed to set the world on fire for the Bulldogs. In Origin no player should make the team on reputation alone. Gould may have erred publicly declaring Anasta was the clear replacement for Barrett, but again, Anasta failed to cement his place in the side. Wesser and Schifcofske on the other hand, are simply playing in the wrong era. It?s that simple.
When the NSW starting lineup was announced, one clearly surprising omission was that of Dragons prop Luke Bailey. It was a shock to see one of the stars of last year?s series on the bench, but Gould has made a shrewd selection. Robbie Kearns is a tough nut who is exactly the player Gould needs for his game plan, particularly in the opening 10 minutes of the series when both teams attempt to assert their authority on the series. Kearns will be called on to play the most intense and maybe reckless 10 minutes of his footballing career. Gould needed an experienced man in his pack who would sacrifice himself for the team. The theory is simple, Gould will ask Kearns to play out of his skin early and then insert Bailey after the opening exchanges, thus maximizing both player?s effectiveness over the course of the game. Gould is stressing the team comes above the individual and both Bailey and Kearns will buy into the concept.
NSW will guts Game One out right until the end, they have picked a team to do this and Gould is putting all his faith in Andrew Johns to lead them around the park. It won?t be pretty football but the Blues are going to play to the strengths of their 17-man squad.
Since 2000 the Blues have won the majority of their games by dominating offensively rather than dominating defensively. This time around, Gould realising that he can?t match the cohesiveness of the Maroons, will get his players to buy into the ?hard work reaps rewards? concept and have his team itching to get onto Lang Park ready to smash the Maroons at their own game.
Make no mistake, NSW can score points, but this Series will be built from the hard ground gained up front and a committed defence. Queensland have this model already road tested with an excellent driver in Lockyer, but the difference this year is NSW have copied the model and have an even better man at the wheel in Johns.
Game One is going to be a ripper, and this writer will back Gould to lead the Blues to an extremely tough 3-0 Series win.
Go the Blues!