After winning just 1 of the last 12 series, the New South Wales Blues are 1-0 up in the 2018 version and have a golden opportunity to defeat their Queensland Maroon foes and take back the State of Origin shield.
In Game 1, the Brad Fittler coached Blues with 11 debutants had the extra class and variety in their play to beat a Maroons outfit still adjusting to life without legends Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston. New South Wales won 22 points to 12.
However, there is a sense of déjà vu as we head into Game 2 of the 2018 series. The 2017 Blues under Laurie Daley had an even bigger win in Game 1 by 28 points to 4 and were hot favourites to win the series after leading 16 points to 6 at halftime. Yet history shows that a gritty Queensland outfit fought back to win 18 points to 16 with Thurston winning the game with a sideline conversion. The Blues couldn’t handle the pressure and went on to lose Game 3 convincingly, with Laurie Daley losing his job.
Even with some big names missing that game is an all too recent reminder to Blues fans to never write off the Maroons.
While Queensland’s preparation for Game 1 was far from ideal, New South Wales’s build up for Game 2 has not been as smooth as they would have liked. Penrith prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard showed strong promise in Game 1 but will miss the rest of the series after suffering a broken jaw in a 32-6 loss to Sydney Roosters. 31-year-old Sharks forward Matt Prior comes into replace Campbell-Gillard. Fortunately for the Blues, outstanding young centre Latrell Mitchell has been cleared to play despite suffering a neck injury in the same match.
Maroons coach Kevin Walters is breathing a sigh of relief that superstar Melbourne fullback Billy Slater is fit and ready to play after a hamstring injury prevented him from playing at The M.C.G.
35-year-old Slater will be as hungry as ever to play a part in a Maroons win having announced that this series will be his last.
The inclusion of the Knights sensation Kalyn Ponga should excite all league fans, with Anthony Milford making way off the bench after struggling to make an impact in Game 1.
New South Wales: James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts, Josh Addo-Carr, James Maloney, Nathan Cleary, David Klemmer, Damien Cook, Matt Prior, Boyd Cordner (c), Tyson Frizell, Jack De Belin. Interchange: Paul Vaughan, Jake Trbojevic, Angus Crichton, Tyrone Peachey.
Queensland: Billy Slater, Valentine Holmes, Greg Inglis, Will Chambers, Dane Gagai, Cameron Munster, Ben Hunt, Dylan Napa, Andrew McCullough, Jarrod Wallace, Gavin Cooper, Felise Kaufusi, Josh McGuire. Interchange: Kalyn Ponga, Josh Papalii, Coen Hess, Jai Arrow.
With so many quality footballers playing for both states there will be numerous key matchups across the ANZ Stadium playing surface, but it’s worth highlighting a few.
The halves battle
James Maloney and Nathan Cleary (NSW) versus Cameron Munster and Ben Hunt (QLD)
If the Blue and Maroon forward battle is even, then the performance of the halves in this Origin could be really decisive. Penrith duo Maloney and Cleary took the honours in Game 1, with the veteran five-eighth Maloney playing a crucial role as Blues came from 12-8 down in the 2nd half. While Maloney was guilty of some poor moments, including the throwing of an intercept to Queensland winger Valentine Holmes, he also displayed great maturity and coolness under pressure. 20-year-old halfback Nathan Cleary had a solid if not spectacular Origin debut, never overplaying his hand and defending well. Cleary might need to step up his attacking game at Homebush.
Cameron Munster and Ben Hunt are not club teammates but there’s little doubt they deserve their roles in the Maroon. Munster’s speed, strength and step make him a real handful for defenders to bring down and Hunt has instinctive brilliance in his running game which Queensland may need him to show more of to improve their hopes of leveling the series.
The centres clash
James Roberts (NSW) versus Greg Inglis (QLD)
Going into Game 1 there were some fears for how Bronco flyer James Roberts might handle new Queensland Captain Greg Inglis running at him. He certainly held his own with Inglis afforded limited chances. However ‘GI’ was still probably the Maroons best performer with his inspirational defence on the night. ‘Jimmy the Jet’ will be looking for early ball to really show his class on Sunday Night but the Maroons skipper will be confident of shutting him down.
The starting props clash
David Klemmer and Matt Prior (NSW) versus Dylan Napa and Jarrod Wallace (QLD)
The performance of the two sets of starting props could set the tone for this Origin clash. The loss of Campbell-Gillard could take away some ‘punch’ and metres gained for the Blues, however, Klemmer is a true Origin player and Prior is a grand final winning prop. The Maroons really need Dylan Napa to fire up with one of his aggressive displays and they’ll be hoping that young Titan Jarrod Wallace goes looking for a lot more runs after a quiet Game 1.
James Tedesco (NSW) v Kalyn Ponga (QLD)
He was brilliant at The M.C.G. but can he do it again? That’s what Blues fans are wondering about fullback James Tedesco. If it’s a fast-paced game around the ruck and hooker Damien Cook is scooting out of dummy half, it’s likely Tedesco will be backing him up and tiring out the Maroon forwards.
The brilliant young Ponga may be on his Origin debut and coming off the bench but after having watched him play for Newcastle throughout the season, the expectations are understandably very high from Maroon fans. His playmaking ability from fullback can resemble the great Billy Slater’s but unlike Slater, he has a wild step to worry defenders.
Despite an improved squad on paper with the addition of Slater and Ponga, Queensland start underdogs in Sydney. Freddy Fittler’s men appear to have a slight advantage in size and skill in the forwards and express pace in the backs.
The Maroons still have the more experienced lineup, a never say die attitude and the weight of history on their side. However, the Blues have a great opportunity to make their own history with a new group of players, unburdened by past disappointments. New South Wales will want to start well and keep playing a positive brand of rugby league if they get in front. If that happens I think Blues Captain Boyd Cordner will be lifting the Shield this year.
New South Wales by 6 points
Will the Blues win and wrap up the 2018 State of Origin series or could the Maroons force a game three decider? Let us know in the comments below.