Series: 2018 State of Origin III preview
Blues eye whitewash in Slater's farewell
Sending off a host of champions on a high note including Darren Lockyer, Petero Civoniceva and Justin Hodges during the course of their unparalleled dynasty, the Maroons will look to save face on Wednesday night as newly appointed captain Billy Slater lines up at Suncorp Stadium for his final appearance in a Maroons jersey.
Making his representative debut just weeks shy of turning 21 back in 2004, the legendary fullback will be intent upon tormenting the Blues one final time having been ingrained into Origin folklore over the years. Serving as a pillar of reliability with 12 tries from 30 appearances, far from his try-scoring prowess Slater's greatest achievement for the Maroons occurred upon returning from a run of potentially career-threatening injuries to help Queensland strike back from a 1-0 deficit to claim the 2017 series.
With the stage set for a finale befitting arguably the greatest fullback to ever play the game, the prospect of New South Wales completing their first clean sweep since 2000 should provide the Blues with no shortage of incentive to spoil the Maroons farewell on Queensland territory.
Drawing derision from many sides over the decision to abandon their famed loyalty principle by recalling Daly Cherry-Evans in favour of incumbent halfback Ben Hunt, the Maroons will be desperate to avoid a third successive loss for a variety of reasons. Having last suffered the embarrassment of a 3-0 series defeat at the beginning of the millennium, the prospect of enduring such a devastating loss against a New South Wales side that has fielded 13 debutants would be a crushing blow for Queensland stakeholders to endure having managed the clean sweep feat just once over the course of 11 series victories since 2006. With Greg Inglis and Kalyn Ponga unavailable, in-form speedster Corey Oates has been handed a recall after being made disposable following last year's series opener, while after spending the best past of three years in representative exile Daly Cherry-Evans will assume responsibility at halfback. In changes not brought on by injury, Melbourne prop Tim Glasby replaces Dylan Napa on the bench with Jai Arrow and Josh Papalii gaining elevation to the starting side after strong showings over the first two matches. Despite losing the series ahead of Wednesday night's Brisbane fixture, the Maroons will be well placed to gain a level of respectability having won 9 out of 11 Suncorp Stadium contests played this decade.
Heading into Game Three with the intent of burying the Maroons' dynasty on Queensland soil, the greatest challenge facing Brad Fittler and his players will be maintaining intensity across the entire 80 minutes in the knowledge that the stakes on offer are significantly less than the opening two matches. Leading 2-0 for just the fourth time since the unification of ARL and Super League 20 years ago, the two previous instances the Blues have headed to Brisbane for a dead rubber have ended with hollow satisfaction when lifting the Origin shield due to Queensland running in over 30-points to claim comprehensive wins on home turf. Making a single change from the team that triumphed in Sydney a fortnight ago, Tariq Sims has been named to make his Origin debut at age 28 having been touted as a New South Wales representative in waiting upon bursting onto the rugby league scene in 2011. Enduring a horror run with injury including multiple broken legs that cast doubts over his playing career, the in-form Dragons back rower replaces Matt Prior in a rotation that will see Paul Vaughan start in the front row following two earlier appearances off the bench. Recording victories that have decreased in margin from the first to second matches of the series, the difference in atmosphere brought on by the Queensland partisan crowd should prove telling for the Blues with tries likely to flow for both sides in a high-scoring affair.
Who to watch: With speculation mounting over the Manly skipper's representative future due to alleged personality clashes and indifferent form in the Origin arena, Daly Cherry-Evans will be eager to silence his critics with a starring performance on Wednesday night. Having last featured for the Maroons in 2015, the 29-year-old halfback has struggled to leave a lasting impression in the Queensland number seven jersey with two losses and a further result going in the Blues favour when thrust into the role early in the 2014 series opener following an injury sustained by Cooper Cronk. Despite the match drawing dismissals as a dead rubber, DCE will be intent upon proving his credentials as a player capable of stepping up in event fixtures having drawn criticism of failing to live up to the reputation that saw him sign a lifetime deal with the Sea Eagles at his career height.
As the only member of the last New South Wales side in a position to complete a 3-0 series win, Blues skipper Boyd Cordner will be driven to amend the sole regret of the victorious 2014 campaign. Coming under fire from rugby league heavyweight Phil Gould prior to this year's series, the Roosters' second rower resolved in the face of criticism to deliver a Man of the Match showing in Sydney while being similarly strong during the series opener in Melbourne. Under an injury cloud heading into the fixture, the chance to further a piece of history by raising the State of Origin shield on enemy territory should see the 26-year-old workhorse put his body on the line in an effort to ensure the hollow feeling of the victorious lap of honour four years ago is replaced by the ecstasy of ushering in a new era of New South Wales success.
The favourite: Retaining the core group of players that have triumphed in the opening two matches of the series, the rarely seen stability of New South Wales has the Blues positioned to record their first clean sweep since 2000.
My tip: While the occasion and environment of Suncorp Stadium should provide the Maroons with the incentive to send Billy Slater off in a manner befitting of the legendary fullback, the chance to consign Queensland's run of dominance to the annals of history should inspire New South Wales to complete a series whitewash. Blues by 10.