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?The BacklineWith 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 HalvesThe 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.The ForwardsQueensland 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.The BenchAs 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.The CoachesMal 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 MaleMy 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.Verdict: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 PredictionsStarkers ? NSW by 4Legend ? Queensland by 14Willow ? Queensland by 1Rammo ? NSW by 14Warrick - NSW by 4Dilmah - NSW by 8Timmah - NSW by 2Noyd - NSW by 22Bartman - QLD by 4Twizzle - NSW by 10
REPRESENTATIVE Prop Luke Bailey and back rower Corey Payne will return from suspension and injury for the Dragons clash with the Knights at Energy Australia Stadium this Friday.Bailey will start in the front row, Michael Henderson moving to the bench having started last match. Payne will also to come from the interchange.The Dragons will be looking for a much improved performance on their Round 5 efforts when they were soundly defeated 54-6 at WIN Stadium by the Knights.Unavailable Dragons are: Jason Ryles (Hand), Mathew Head (Knee), Wes Naiqama (Ankle), Ashton Sims (Wrist) and Matt Cooper (Hamstring).NRL ROUND 12, 2006St George Illawarra Dragons v Newcastle Knights7:30pm Friday 26 May EnergyAustralia StadiumDragons teamCoach: Nathan Brown 1. Clint GREENSHIELDS2. Colin BEST3. Mark GASNIER4. Daryl MILLARD5. Brett MORRIS6. Trent BARRETT (c)7. Ben HORNBY8. Luke BAILEY9. Aaron GORRELL10. Justin POORE11. Ben CREAGH12. Dean YOUNG13. Shaun TIMMINS14. Michael HENDERSON15. Matt BICKERSTAFF16. Corey PAYNE17. Danny WICKS-Dragons MediaKnights teamKurt Gidley, Brian Carney, Matthew Gidley, George Carmont, Brad Tighe, Jarrod Mullen, Andrew Johns (c), Craig Smith, Danny Buderus, Adam Woolnough, Steve Simpson, Todd Lowrie, Reegan Tanner. Interchange: Luke Davico, Kirk Reynoldson, Josh Perry, Riley Brown.-AAP
FRIDAY, 26th May 2006Newcastle v St George Illawarra at EnergyAustralia Stadium, 7.30pmKnights: Kurt Gidley, Brian Carney, Matthew Gidley, George Carmont, Brad Tighe, Jarrod Mullen, Andrew Johns (c), Craig Smith, Danny Buderus, Adam Woolnough, Steve Simpson, Todd Lowrie, Reegan TannerInterchange: Luke Davico, Kirk Reynoldson, Josh Perry, Riley BrownDragons: Clint Greenshields, Colin Best, Mark Gasnier, Daryl Millard, Brett Morris, Trent Barrett (c), Ben Hornby, Luke Bailey, Aaron Gorrell, Justin Poore, Ben Creagh, Dean Young, Shaun TimminsInterchange: Michael Henderson, Matt Bickerstaff, Corey Payne, Danny WicksReferee: Tony ArcherSaturday, 27th May 2006North Queensland v Canberra at Dairy Farmers Stadium, 5.30pmCowboys: Matt Bowen, Brenton Bowen, Ashley Graham, Paul Bowman, Matt Sing, Justin Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Matthew Scott, Aaron Payne, Carl Webb, Steve Southern, Luke O'Donnell, Travis Norton (c)Interchange: Rod Jensen, David Faiumu, Mitchell Sargent, Shane Tronc, Gavin Cooper (one to be omitted)Raiders: Clinton Schifcoske (c), Craig Frawley, Phil Graham, Adam Mogg, David Howell, Todd Carney, Lincoln Withers, Andrew Lomu, Simon Woolford, Troy Thompson, Thom Learoyd-Lars, Jason Croker, Alan TongueInterchange: Marshall Chalk, Ben Jones, Michael Hodgson, Jason Williams, Terry Martin, Alan Rothery (two to be omitted)Referee: Gavin BadgerBrisbane v Canterbury at Suncorp Stadium, 7.30pmBroncos: Karmichael Hunt, Tame Tupou, Justin Hodges, Brent Tate, Darius Boyd, Darren Lockyer (c), Shane Perry, Brad Thorn, Casey McGuire, Petero Civoniceva, David Stagg, Corey Parker, Tonie CarrollInterchange: Greg Eastwood, Ben Hannant, Sam Thaiday, Shaun Berrigan, Brett Seymour (one to be omitted)Bulldogs: Luke Patten, Hazem El Masri, Sonny Bill Williams, Willie Tonga, Cameron Phelps, Daniel Holdsworth, Brent Sherwin, Mark O'Meley, Corey Hughes, Roy Asotasi, Willie Mason, Andrew Ryan (c), Tony GrimaldiInterchange: Reni Maitua, Chris Armit, Brad Morrin, Nate MylesReferee: Steve ClarkCronulla v New Zealand at Toyota Park, 7.30pmSharks: David Simmons, Darren Albert, Nigel Vagana, Phil Bailey, Luke Covell, Brett Kearney, Brett Kimmorley (c), James Stosic, Kevin Kingston, Luke Douglas, Reece Williams, Greg Bird, Paul GallenInterchange: Richard Villasanti, Matt Hilder, Beau Scott, Tony Caine, Hutch Maiava (one to be omitted)Warriors: Brent Webb, Manu Vatuvei, Tony Martin, Simon Mannering, Misi Taulapapa, Jerome Ropati, Grant Rovelli, Ruben Wiki, Nathan Fien, Steve Price (c), Awen Guttenbeil, Wairangi Koopu, Sione FaumuinaInterchange: George Gatis, Evarn Tuimavave, Louis Anderson, Micheal Luck, Sam Rapira (one to be omitted)Referee: Ben CumminsSunday, 28th May 2006Melbourne v Penrith at Olympic Park, 2.30pmStorm: Greg Inglis, Matt Geyer, Matt King, Jake Webster, Steve Turner, Scott Hill, Cooper Cronk, Garrett Crossman, Cameron Smith, Brett White, David Kidwell, Ryan Hoffman, Dallas JohnsonInterchange: Ian Donnelly, Jeremy Smith, Antonio Kaufusi, Nathan FriendPanthers: Rhys Wesser, Michael Gordon, Danny Galea, Luke Lewis, Luke Rooney, Preston Campbell, Craig Gower, Joel Clinton, Luke Priddis, Matthew Cross, Frank Pritchard, Tony Puletua (c), Trent WaterhouseInterchange: Frank Puletua, Craig Stapleton, Matthew Bell, Paul Aiton, Lee Hookey (one to be omitted)Referee: Shayne HayneParramatta v Sydney at Parramatta Stadium, 3pmEels: Joel Reddy, Jarryd Hayne, Brett Delaney, Timana Tahu, Eric Grothe, John Morris, Jeremy Smith, Fuifui Moimoi, PJ Marsh, Paul Stringer, Nathan Hindmarsh, Chad Robinson, Glenn MorrisonInterchange: Mark Riddell, Dean Widders, Daniel Wagon, Michael Vella, Luke O'Dwyer (one to be omitted)Roosters: Amos Roberts, Sam Perret, Ryan Cross, Iosia Soliola, Vince Mellars, Braith Anasta, Brett Finch, Adrian Morley, Craig Wing, David Shillington, Nigel Plum, Craig Fitzgibbon (c), Ashley HarrisonInterchange: Jamie Soward, Anthony Tupou, Chris Flannery, Lopini Paea, John Doyle, Setaimata Sa, Heath L'Estrange (three to be omitted)Referee: Sean HampsteadSouth Sydney v Wests at Telstra Stadium, 3pmRabbitohs: Todd Polglase, Luke MacDougall, John Sutton, Adam MacDougall, Nathan Merritt, Ben Rogers, Joe Williams, Peter Cusack (c), Shane Walker, Manase Manuokafoa, David Faalogo, Joe Galuvao, Mark MinichielloInterchange: Jaiman Lowe, Shannan McPherson, Stuart Webb, Shane RigonTigers: Brett Hodgson (c), Taniela Tuiaki, Dean Collis, Paul Whatuira, Shane Elford, Benji Marshall, Scott Prince, Ryan O'Hara, Robbie Farah, John Skandalis, Anthony Laffranchi, Todd Payten, Jamaal LolesiInterchange: Chris Heighington, Dene Halatau, Bryce Gibbs, Keith Galloway, Bronson Harrison (one to be omitted)Referee: Paul SimpkinsThe Manly Sea Eagles have the bye in Round 12.
IT?S that time of year again people. Time to pull out the true colours for your state, but more so, illustrate your personal hatred for the opposing state.That?s right. State of Origin is upon us again and with only a day until league?s fiercest of rivalries kicks off, I?m feeling more and more like a stray dog on a leash.It?s difficult to pick a winner in Origin, as historically things are never decided on paper or in the stat book. But I?ll do my best for you now.Backs: You?d have to favour the Maroons here. They boast a far more potent backline than the Blues. The likes of Steven Bell and Greg Inglis will wreak havoc for the Blues? outside defenders if given early ball from the halves, while Justin Hodges will continue to terrorise his opposites as he has done for the Broncos all season. And Matt Bowen, as most Origin fans know, can win a game for his state with one play. The Blues have a far more conservative backline. Brett Hodgson won?t let his State down but whether NSW can expect knockout plays from him, as has been the case with Anthony Minichiello in recent years, remains to be seen. Matt King hasn?t been outstanding this season but earns his place on reputation. Great to see Eric Grothe in the side but his defensive defects may be exposed if he doesn?t aim up to the likes of Inglis and Hodges. Mark Gasnier is the main card in the deck, if he can get on the outside of Brent Tate early it may shatter the Queenslander?s confidence ? which could lead to a long night for the former Test centre. But if Gasnier gets off on the wrong foot, NSW will need to rely solely on Timana Tahu for their spark out wide. Personally I think Tahu has yet to prove his worth at this level. It will be interesting to see whether he eats buttered crumpets before this representative game or not.Halves: Again, the Maroons hold the upper hand in this area. A rejuvenated Darren Lockyer has enjoyed a fantastic start to the 2006 season and from that, Queensland will benefit immensely. Johnathan Thurston?s tremendous start to 2006 has been well-documented and rightly so. These two marvels will hurt NSW if Queensland?s forwards can push themselves over the advantage line regularly. I don?t mind Craig Gower?s selection at halfback as NSW didn?t have much choice after the Andrew Johns? representative retirement. Gower won?t let anyone down tomorrow night and will continue playing even if every bone in his body has broken. The big unknown is the five eighth position for NSW. Braith Anasta has shown nothing to suggest that he deserves his spot and was selected purely on reputation. I wonder how he?ll go. Origin should be about picking the best 17 players possible in order to win the series. It may come back to bite NSW on Wednesday night.Forwards: This is where NSW should be looking to play the game. They are definitely the stronger and with Queensland unveiling three debutants in the starting back-row, NSW should be looking to intimidate Queensland from the outset. I think Danny Buderus and Cameron Smith cancel each other out ? if Buderus plays that is. If Luke Priddis is a late inclusion, it?s advantage Queensland. In the front row, I think NSW have a slight edge. Willie Mason has been playing tremendous football as has Manly?s Brent Kite. Steven Price and Petero Civoniceva will get the Queenslanders forward but I think in the front row it?s favourable to NSW.We?ll have to go with NSW in the back row as well. There will be three debutants in those positions for Queensland whereas NSW boast Nathan Hindmarsh who is now an established representative player, Steve Simpson who has been in outstanding form for the table-topping Newcastle Knights, and Luke O?Donnell who was a certain selection for the Australian side against the Kiwis. David Stagg, Matthew Scott and Dallas Johnson will definitely earn their money.Bench: As was the case with the forwards ? advantage NSW. The utility position is filled by Craig Wing who admittedly hasn?t been in his best form but has a tremendous track record in representative matches. Expect him to come on around the 50 minute mark and try to dart out of dummy half at the tired Queensland forwards. Steve Menzies and Andrew Ryan will be a steadying influence off the bench, both solid defenders and can cause trouble on the edges of the ruck ? especially given the inexperience of Queensland?s outside defenders. And Mark O?Meley will be given a license from coach Graham Murray to run onto Telstra Stadium and explode tomorrow night. He?ll no doubt be looking forward to a potential running battle with Queensland hit-man Carl Webb. Those wanting some good old-fashioned biff tomorrow night, just watch these two giants go at each other, they won?t disappoint.Other than Webb, the Queensland bench is a little suspect. Nate Myles has a big shoulder-charge on him and Sam Thaiday is a devastating ball-runner but the major selection which has raised eyebrows is that of Shaun Berrigan on the bench. It seemed that after last year?s Origin series Queensland would be reluctant to pick Berrigan in Maroons colours again. Major back-flip there and it will be intriguing to see how he performs.Verdict: NSW by 14. As we?ve seen, Queensland has the upper hand in the outside backs and the halves. But these games are traditionally won in the forwards and New South Wales look as though they have too much for Queensland in that department. The bench will also benefit NSW and after some tight early exchanges and a close score-line at halftime, expect the Blues to run over the top of the Maroons in the second half. As we know with Origin, predictions don?t always work out and if NSW are complacent they will be in for a rude shock. The Blues though haven?t been beaten at Telstra Stadium in 10 matches and there?s no reason why that won?t be 11.With only a day to go, all I say is bring it on!