Championship SQUADS - 2021 Playoffs Week 1
42 mins ago | LeagueUnlimited Media
Almost a week on from the Blues game one triumph, we take a look at whether the Maroons great reign has come to an end, as well as any possible changes heading into game two.
Before we delve too far into the above, let's take a minute (or five) to pay homage to an outstanding team performance from the men south of the Tweed last Wednesday night. Every member of Coach Laurie Daley's 17 man squad played their part in what can only be described as the Blues most complete game of football since the great Andrew Johns guided them to victory way back in 2005.
The forwards, led by man of the match Andrew Fifita and new skipper Boyd Cordner laid a great platform to work off. All 5 outside backs were also valuable in this facet with Tedesco, Morris, Hayne, Dugan and Ferguson all chalking up 100 plus running metres. The debut of Nathan Peats at the ruck was as good as you'll see from a smaller man playing in one of the toughest positions on the paddock. Playing through a bad cork, he led the defensive line and gave quality service out of dummy half with every ball off the deck precise and out in front of his ball runners all night.
The halves combination of Maloney and Pearce were able to take advantage of a solid platform and get plenty of clean early ball to their outside men, whilst their willingness to be always pushing up in support netted them a try each. If there was one knock on them, it would be their kicking game with Pearce in particular going high to Corey Oates far too often. It's a part of his game that has improved out of sight in club football and something he'll need to get right before what could be a much tighter affair at ANZ Stadium in a fortnight. Coach Daley might be looking for Maloney to take on a touch more ownership of last tackle plays as well.
Perhaps of most importance on the night was the Blues scrambling defence late in the contest when the game was seemingly well and truly in their grip. The Maroons got over the line on numerous occasions in the final 15 minutes, only to be denied by what can only be described as ‘Origin plays". In years gone by, there's every chance them tries would have been let in giving the Maroons a leg-up heading into the next match, but it seems finally the Blues get that competing on every play for the 80 minutes is what defines Origin footy.
In a word NO.
The biggest mistake the Blues could make now, would be to believe they have any sort of momentum whatsoever. They will need to have the mindset of asserting their dominance physically all over again come the opening whistle for game two.
In the final 15 minutes when the game was out of the Maroons reach, it was noticeable their willingness to roll up their sleeves and keep charging forward. They continued to compete on every play as they have always done with the belief it will lead to bigger things in the next encounter. The image of Cameron Smith with his team in a huddle just prior to this passage of play could yet prove a telling one.
For those who watched the channel nine coverage through to the end on Wednesday night, you may have noticed the shot of Johnathan Thurston sitting in the sheds post-match. The burn in his eyes was clear for all to see and there's no doubt he'll be doing everything humanly possible to get his shoulder right for game two. Thurston's competitiveness is now legendary and is always on show even when it doesn't has to be, so you could only imagine his drive when he hits the pitch with his beloved state's dynasty on the verge of coming to an end in his last ever series…
It seems almost eerie that barring injury or suspension, there is absolutely no need to talk of any team changes to the Blues line-up, but such was the magnitude of their victory that Coach Daley will have every faith in the 17 men getting the job done in game two.
Unfortunately in Rugby League, injuries do occur and already over the weekend we have seen game one right edge back-rower Tyson Frizell suffer what looked a nasty rib injury. Thankfully for the Blues, scans have cleared him of any serious injury, but the Dragons forward will still need to convince Coach Daley of his fitness and will be aiming to line up for his club next Monday. If he was to be unavailable, the Blues aren't short on options to replace him.
The logical step would be to move Josh Jackson back onto the right edge and bring either Jake Trbojevic or Wade Graham into the starting team, opening up a spot on the bench. Extended game one squad members Jack De Belin and Jordan McLean would be firmly in the frame, along with Paul Vaughan who's been knocking on the door all year and a possible recall to Trent Merrin who had a barnstorming game on Sunday running for over 200 metres and is playing with plenty of energy.
The obvious talking point over the next couple of weeks is of course, will Coach Kevin Walters bite the bullet and bring back Billy Slater, arguably the greatest fullback the game has ever seen?
Of course he will. The series is on the line and this isn't just any series. The buzz around Rugby League circles at the moment is that this could be the series the tide finally turns in NSW's favour and game one certainly indicated that.
Slater has made a tremendous return from injury this year and knocked down the door for an Origin recall with an attacking masterclass in his team's win on Friday night with 165 metres, 5 tackle busts, a line-break, 2 try-assists and 2 tries. Proven at this level and is a momentum changing player. It would only take one piece of his individual brilliance to get the Maroons back on the front foot in this series.
Slater's return at the back would push prolific Maroons try-scorer Darius Boyd to the wing, Dane Gagai to his preferred centre position and Justin O'Neill out of the side after he was given an absolute bath by the stunning Origin return of Jarryd Hayne.
Already there's been calls for Australian winger Holmes to be the second change to the backline for game two. That lands Oates perhaps unfairly in the firing line.
Oates was solid under a barrage of Ariel raids from Pearce and his big frame was again invaluable coming out of trouble. As good a job as Oates has done in his four Origin games to date, Holmes can also do all of the above mentioned, whilst also having the advantage of electric speed off the mark capable of turning a game on its head.
Under increasing pressure heading into game one, Nate Myles remains firmly in the firing line along with bench forwards Jacob Lillyman, Sam Thaiday and Aidan Guerra after being part of a forward pack mostly rolled over by the young and hungry Blues.
Game One 18th man Jarrod Wallace has the experience of being in camp and has been in strong form all year for the Titans. Works the house down and wouldn't take a backwards step in the Origin arena.
Towering young Cowboys back-rower Coen Hess remains firmly in the frame after another strong performance on the weekend chalking up 140 running metres in just 35 minutes of game time, whilst also scoring a crucial try just after halftime, ultimately taking the game away from the Titans. The try was his 9th in 12 games for the year proving again just how dangerous his big frame can be close to the line.
If Coach Walters really wanted to shake things up, 30 year old Scott Bolton could prove a real bolter. Whilst the focus will more than likely be on younger forwards coming into the system, the Cowboys bookend has been in strong form up North. In the absence of the departed James Tamou and an injured Matt Scott, Bolton has stepped up in the duo's absence with an average 132 metres and 31 tackles this year. Has great leg-drive and would certainly give his all for the Maroons jersey.
At the moment the answer to this question is anyone's guess.
There's no doubt the future immortal will be doing everything possible, but he did have that same mindset prior to game one before being ruled out. Named in an extended Cowboys squad for a number of weeks now, the fact his shoulder hasn't yet come good when club officials have given him a chance each week must be of great concern.
If he does in fact slip back into his famed number six jersey, the popular belief is game one debutante Anthony Milford would be the man to make way with Michael Morgan seemingly having a mortgage on the utility role.
That decision might not be so clear cut though. Milford handled himself well on debut, standing up in defence and showing glimpses of his freakish footwork on the rare occasions he got the ball on the front foot.
Whilst Morgan has done a more than admirable job in the utility role, covers a number of positions and provides a bigger frame when entering the field of battle, has he ever actually turned the momentum of a game at this level?
Imagine what the fleet-footed Milford could do entering the park against tired Blues defenders late in each half…
Last but certainly not least, kudos to referee Matt Cecchin and his assistant Gerard Sutton for a fine display of whistle blowing or lack thereof.
Yep, that's right! Everyone's quick to hit them with their biggest stick when they make one wrong call, so let's also give them credit where it's due.
Bravo Mr Referees for letting the game flow….