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As a fan of Rugby League I can?t wait for State of Origin time to grace my fridge magnet calendar every year. You come to embrace all the hype and expectation surrounding the contest and sometimes that masks the underlying form of either side that is set to take the field.
And I think that?s what we have before us as NSW and QLD prepare themselves for the first confrontation in 2006. Whilst Queensland has been quietly going about their business it would appear that New South Wales are in real trouble. Or are they?
With Matt Cooper ruled out fairly early on, Parramatta winger Eric Grothe has filled the void with a minimum of fuss. This leaves us with some doubts over the fitness of Timana Tahu, who is under a slight injury cloud but should play. Luke Lewis is on standby should anything go wrong, but I hear he?s been ruled too sick to take the field. The word is Adam MacDougall is next in line.
The Maroons would have enjoyed watching it all unravel as it takes the focus away from a relatively inexperienced backline where whiz kid Greg Inglis and the sturdy Steve Bell take part in their first Origin match. But if ever I?ve seen two guys ready for Origin, it?s them. I?ll bet Bell will swap around with Tate at various points in the game and the same goes for Inglis and Bowen at fullback.
Speaking of fullbacks, Hodgson makes his return at this level after having been rag-dolled by Big Gordie way back in 2002. The custodians are renowned attacking players but they are small and a little vulnerable at the back.
The halves are the most mystifying piece of the jigsaw, yet we have a similar trend to the problem in the backs. Craig Gower is spending Tuesday night in hospital after a knee injury suffered at training, turning the no. 7 jersey into a case of last man standing ? literally. If Gower can?t play, the next logical choice was Orford who apparently has a leg injury. Kimmorley is still a little dusty with his ankle problem and not seen as an alternative. So the only other halfback running around with Origin experience is Brett Finch who just happens to be Anasta?s clubmate and they?re not exactly setting the world on fire.
It?s a different story in the Maroons camp though, with Queensland duo Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston in form and ready to fire. Both men have been in tremendous touch at club level and will be hard to stop. In fact you?d have to think they?re a real chance of running riot and blowing the match apart.
Queensland will be minus the mongrel of Michael Crocker and the power of Ben Ross but have still managed to put a solid pack together for the opening game. Price and Civoniceva up front offer a steady hand as the Maroons front row tries to contain or perhaps dominate the Blues. Whilst I revere Willie Mason for what he has achieved this season, I have my concerns over Brent Kite. He may have played at this level before but he?s not the kind of guy I?d want in the opening exchanges.
NSW have a clear experience advantage in the backrow however, with Hindmarsh, Simpson and O?Donnell all having graced this stage before. They should be able to win the battle on the fringes of the ruck but it won?t be easy. Even though the Queensland backrow of Stagg, Scott and Johnson are rookies they?re not mugs and there?s a reason they?ve been selected ? they can play footy. It could get a little loose out there and we might see a few big hits as well.
The other significant factor is hooker. Buderus is a likely starter but there is still a bit of doubt there with Priddis on standby. If the Blues' captain doesn?t take the field it will be a huge setback. Smith for Queensland is another player in form and he?ll test the NSW pack as they tire late in each half.
As is the case these days it?s a 17-man game and the blokes on the sidelines will have a significant impact to the outcome of the match. Everyone?s jumping up and down about how good the NSW bench is though, but I just don?t see it. Wing isn?t playing his best footy and if the starting forwards can?t get on top it will detract from the impact of O?Meley. Menzies and Ryan have both been there before but they?re more toilers of the game than anything else and I?m not convinced they?ll do anything special.
We all sat around and scratched our heads at the selection of Shaun Berrigan and fair enough. But why? Because we don?t know why he?s there, right? I?m not sure Graham Murray does either. The guy is versatile if anything and I think they were searching for the closest thing they could find to Wing for NSW. If there?s an injury he?ll cover better than Wing as well. The rest of the Queensland bench offers plenty of impact with Webb and Thaiday sure to explode upon deployment and Myles providing reliable go forward when required.
Mal Meninga and Graham Murray each assume the reigns for the first time.
Meninga has a chequered career in coaching leading the Raiders for five years with mixed results. He was able to extract some good footy out of them but also some average stuff as well. They made the semi?s 3 out of 5 years under his leadership so he must have done something right.
Murray clearly has the superior record at club level and can boast two Grand Final appearances. He also coaches Bowen, Thurston, Webb and Scott each week so he?ll have a fair idea of how to stop them.
In my opinion though, Murray has it all to lose. Queensland is yet to win at this ground and it?s only a matter of time before they break their duck.
The Alpha Male
My tip for best on ground is Queensland hooker Cameron Smith. I like the cut of his jib and he?s got everything you need in a rake: good service, runs when he should and can kick.
With the weather in Sydney raining over the past couple of days you would have to think that advantages the Blues. They can adapt to a flatter style of attack and minimise handling errors. But I?m very worried about the fractured build-up they?ve had. Every day we hear about a new player getting injured or on the verge of being ruled out of the squad. On the flipside, this could serve to bring them closer as a group and solidify their camp.
The Maroons have no issues to speak of which in some ways makes them the favourites, even though they?re travelling in the first game and have seven debutants. If they?re given that tag I don?t think they?ll wear it with pride and they could look a bit uneasy. I think they?ll give it a real shake, but I can?t take them in this first game. I think they need to play together first and get a feel for the team before they can win a game.
Blues by a nose.
League Unlimited Predictions
Starkers ? NSW by 4
Legend ? Queensland by 14
Willow ? Queensland by 1
Rammo ? NSW by 14
Warrick - NSW by 4
Dilmah - NSW by 8
Timmah - NSW by 2
Noyd - NSW by 22
Bartman - QLD by 4
Twizzle - NSW by 10