Series: 2018 Origin I Preview
A new generation takes on rugby league's greatest spectacle.
In the 12 years that have elapsed since the Maroons started one of the greatest dynasties in modern sport, a number of monumental changes have taken place. Australian Governments have come to treat Prime Ministers the same way battling NRL clubs do coaches. Countries once declared minnows have stepped up and claimed major scalps in international football. While in the simpler time of 2006, the host of a reality television show didn't hold the power to potentially bring about a nuclear holocaust.
In just over a decade the complexion of State of Origin has been forever changed by the legacy left by Mal Meninga's tenure as coach of the Queensland. Claiming victory in 11 of the past 12 series, with Kevin Walters at the helm for the past two, the feats produced by the likes of Lockyer, Smith, Thurston, Cronk, Hodges, Civoniceva among many, many more has resulted in an illustrious legacy unlikely to be repeated for years to come.
In comparison, the annual heartache interrupted only once in 2014 by New South Wales has seen a host of aspirants fall short time and time again. Regularly seeking quick-fix solutions and lacking the investment afforded by their northern counterparts to develop players, the need to break the status quo has resulted in one of the largest overhauls seen since the ‘state versus state' concept was revamped in 1980.
Naming 11 debutants in his maiden game as coach, New South Wales' most-capped player Brad Fittler will be hopeful of changing the fortunes of his beloved state that for too long have been unable to get the job done. Fielding a youthful team brimming with enthusiasm and strong club form during the first half of 2018, what the Blues lack in experience they more than make up for in raw ability. Naming a backline full of the fastest speedsters in the game today, the try-scoring issues that have plagued New South Wales during Queensland's historic run appear to be at the forefront of coach Fittler's mind. Recognising his side's inability to outlast the Maroons in low-scoring affairs that have been tailor-made for the likes of Greg Inglis and Billy Slater to conjure late miracles, the attacking mind frame to be employed by the Blues should ensure points are aplenty on Wednesday night. With in-form playmaker James Maloney, firebrand prop David Klemmer and criticised captain Boyd Cordner each featuring in nine matches for the Blues, the experience held by the trio will be vital towards steadying the exuberance of the young side, while also recognising the importance of providing the likes of Nathan Cleary, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Angus Crichton with the opportunities to make their presence felt in the series opener.
While the succession of champion players has been relatively seamless during the Maroons' dynasty, 2018 shapes as the most important series for Queensland since Mal Meninga took over as coach. Unable to draw upon over a century of Origin appearances due to the representative retirements of Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith, the absence of experienced campaigners may prove pivotal in how the series plays out over the coming weeks. Selecting Andrew McCullough, Felise Kaufusi and Jai Arrow for their maiden appearances in the Maroon jersey, coach Kevin Walters will be banking on the collective 59-games of experience held by new captain Greg Inglis and imminent retiree Billy Slater to step up once more to give the reigning champions a calming influence amid unprecedented upheaval. Among the many factors to contend with, one of the unresolved issues confronting the revamped side will be the monumental task of establishing a goal-kicker capable of being the difference between winning and losing through their boot. With Valentine Holmes the only player to strike the ball above 70%, albeit on a less than regular basis, the try-scoring prowess enjoyed by the Maroons out wide epitomised by notable omission Darius Boyd could result in score increments of four, rather than the previously near-guaranteed six courtesy of the boot of JT.
In what will be the ninth Origin fixture held in Melbourne, both sides will have their sights set on breaking the 4-all deadlock established since the first time the two states ventured to Victoria back in 1990. While Queensland managed three wins at Docklands during their historic run during the new millennium, New South Wales hold a slight advantage in matches played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, including the most recent meeting of the states back in 2015. Recording a rousing come-from-behind win in Game 2 three years ago, only Boyd Cordner and David Klemmer remain from the side that triumphed 26-18 in proof of the overhaul sought to change the fortunes of Blues under Brad Fittler.
Who to watch: Enduring a turbulent season at club level, the opportunity to channel the frustrations that have seen the Bulldogs drastically under achieve in 2018 should provide David Klemmer with the motivation to step up on the biggest stage in rugby league. As a veteran of the current NSW team with nine Origins to his name, the firebrand front-rower has regularly thrived in the representative arena with his aggressive temperament inspiring those around him to lift as a whole. Having had his place in the Blues squad questioned prior to Brad Fittler's backing due to the middling form shown by his club, the 24-year-old will be intent on asserting a dominant platform for the young NSW playmakers to capitalise upon, while also making a statement against a Queensland forward pack that on current form appear to be well short of the dynasty that has achieved a level of success in the representative arena unlikely to be matched. Given the youthful enthusiasm present throughout the majority of the new-look Blues squad, the lessons learnt by Klemmer over the past three series should see the hulking prop take on the responsibility of being the player to stand up and be counted when the Maroons apply pressure during the course of the match.
There are few, if any, players to have demonstrated a level of dominance in the representative arena as emphatic as Greg Inglis. Debuting for Queensland at age 19 in the first of 11 Origin campaigns, the newly appointed captain will return to the Maroons a well travelled, but somewhat hesitant player. Having shown himself to be capable of keeping pace at club level, the challenge of retaining the power and strength that saw opposing players dread facing off against the 30 game veteran has yet to be seen since returning from serious injury. With the effects of age and having to adapt his style of play in accordance with the decline of his body taking a toll, the prospect of facing off against a NSW side boasting rookies that have based their careers around the feats of Inglis in his prime could be the making or breaking of one of the game's greatest ever players. Should the South Sydney skipper prove to the likes of Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts and Josh Addo-Carr that he remains one of the benchmark for outside backs, the resolution of his comeback from injury will be among one of the great returns in recent memory. However, should the new generation of speedsters leave the former Clive Churchill Medalist unable to keep pace, the writing may be on the wall that after more than a decade at the peak of rugby league, the changing of the guard has arrived.
The favourite: With the representative retirements of Smith, Cronk and Thurston, along with the absences of a number of prominent Maroons figures, New South Wales have been installed as favourites despite fielding more debutants than the Blues scored tries last year.
My tip: While the Maroons backline boast some of the best attacking players in the game today, quality of the forward pack selected by Kevin Walters should present Brad Fittler with the ideal opportunity to seize control of the match. With Wednesday night serving as the most important match in the careers of almost the entire NSW team, the raging fire of energy contained by the 11 debutants selected in accordance with the supreme game management shown by James Maloney should see the Blues open up a one-nil lead in the 2018 series.
Margin: New South Wales by 12
First Try Scorer: Dane Gagai (QLD)
Man of the Match: Tyson Frizell (NSW)
Kick-off bingo: 8:17pm
Queensland Form Guide
Yet to play this season
New South Wales Form Guide
Yet to play this season