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On Wednesday night, as the little hand nudges eight, the people of the world will pause for 80 minutes to focus on the nearest cathode ray tube in their home, pub or local RetraVision, transfixed wholly by the combat of this year?s first interstate clash at the very place it was born 25 years ago.
Yes folks, State of Origin has arrived for season 2005 and with it comes the celebrated excuse to stand up, proudly announce your state allegiance before tearing chunky strips off your arch rivals using punches, prose or prayer until you can no longer remain upright.
This game?s packed tighter than a tradie?s roll-your-own and is ready to explode into a bonanza of heart-pumping action set to mesmerise our senses until we fall off our lounges, squirming around on the ground vigorously trying to swallow our tongues all within the backdrop of the cauldron that is Lang Park.
With both teams in camp since last Monday afternoon, the players have been getting used to their new roommates? hygiene standards whilst carefully studying the game plans which Messrs Stuart and Hagan have meticulously prepared for them. With ill-fated bonding sessions and phone calls nowhere to be seen this time around, the players themselves will be chewing the laminate off their bench-tops in anticipation of getting out into the centre of the park to begin legally inflicting grievous bodily harm upon each other.
Here are some of the key match-ups that will set the tone for this contest:
Minichiello v Slater
Fullback is one of the most important positions on the field and both Minichiello and Slater have been there before and know what to do with each possessing unique skills. Mini has an exceptional kick return with a good turn of pace, reliable ball skills and he always backs up. Slater has exceptional speed, a killer step and has that X-factor which can see him do something freakish at the drop of a hat, like last year?s chip-an-chase try.
For the Blues, the back three are very big with King and Rooney both well over 6-foot and Mini not exactly a midget. This could prove a very handy advantage when it comes to diffusing the high ball or soaring above their opponents on cross-field kicks.
The Maroons have Cowboys team mates Williams and Sing on the flanks who can both motor when they get the ball. They will be looking to catch their taller opponents off guard with nimble footwork when close to the line.
Barrett and Kimmorley v Lockyer and Thurston
We have an exceptionally talented bunch of halves here, with Thurston on debut following his sensational club form. But Barrett has been stinging since losing his no.6 Australian jersey to Lockyer and will want it back. Did anyone else notice a bit of extra spite every time Baz tackled Locky in round 6 when they played at WIN Stadium?
Kimmorley is on a mission of his own to finally break free of the shadow that Andrew Johns has cast over his sometimes fleeting occupancy of the sky-blue no.7 jumper. He comes up against a novice at this level, but one that is full of confidence right now.
Lockyer and Thurston will be an intriguing halves pairing with both possessing exciting running, kicking and passing attributes to take the game to NSW. Barrett and Kimmorley are more likely to have structure to their game and will feed an imposing backline hungry to tear open the more orthodox Queensland centre pairing.
Bailey and Ryles v Price and Civoniceva
The opening exchanges will be worn on the collective frames of these four men.
The two Dragons props are the only specialists to be picked for the Blues with coach Stuart opting for mobility over muscles. These guys have a lot of responsibility and must lead the way for NSW. Bailey is capable of playing a large part of the game, with Ryles set to match the tempo of the Queenslanders and raise it where necessary.
Pricey and Petero form a tall and skilful pairing upfront for the Maroons after the retirement from rep footy of Shane Webcke. These guys will be sent out there to keep things simple and trade blows with Bailey and Ryles as much as possible until Hage?s unleashes his subs.
Ross and Webb will be foaming at the mouth on the sidelines waiting to get the nod to enter the battle. These guys could cause plenty of damage up the middle of the ruck against the Blues and give Matty Bowen opportunities to exploit tired opponents. McGuire will add an extra playmaking option.
For the Blues, Simpson will become the hitman and Ryan will stabilise the pack when he enters the fray. Watmough will be sent out there to bust the line with his mobility and hard-nosed approach to the game, and Craig Wing will be sniffing around the edge of the ruck where gaps will appear when the forwards tire.
As these things are the closest games of footy in the world, it appears folly to predict with any certainty their outcome.
But a few things do stand out, especially the loss of Carroll to Queensland which will have a big impact to their game plan. Flannery will now have to cover that role but will he do it as well? NSW may be a shade smaller in the forwards, but they won?t be intimidated and their running game will really trouble Queensland.
Bowen from the bench is the wild-card here and being the opener at Suncorp Stadium, the Maroons should notch a first up victory in a tight, classic encounter.