With Game 1 done and dusted it’s time for the Maroons to lick their wounds and for New South Wales fans to prematurely speak about their own dynasty beginning; so quickly they’ve forgotten the lessons of last year. But the only lessons that matter are the ones learned by the players on both teams. Despite being heavy favourites, for much of the contest, the Blues played second fiddle to a Queensland team that showed greater intensity in defence and presented better game management. The Blues won by 10. To lose that game by such a margin, Queensland made some serious errors and some of them started as early as the team announced last week.
Selection Issues: Walters got it wrong.
With the retirements of Thurston, Cronk and Smith the Maroons were never going to match the Blues on paper. In the past, with those great players, it was enough to pick an honest, forward pack who can hold their own long enough to keep the team in the game, with those legends putting the icing on the cake time and time again. It’s not enough anymore. Munster has greatness in him, Hunt is a quality half and McCullough is a good player, but they are not the aforementioned names. The Queensland forwards need strike. They need forwards that take losing personally. They needed Matt Scott. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but anyone that has watched Scott’s last 3 or 4 performances knew that he was playing origin-standard footy. He was coming out of the line to target his opposite number. He helped nullify a Panthers pack that no one else can go with. Plus, he’s been the best front rower on the planet for the best part of a decade. He was a must-have. Walters got it wrong.
However, the rest of the team was very hard to argue with. Most were picked on form or some semblance of it. Then the week from hell in camp happened. Their halfback wasn’t able to train for most of the camp (his excellent performance is all the more amazing for this fact), Dane Gagai had a late injury scare. The biggest problem was the withdrawal of champion fullback Billy Slater, whose experience the selectors were banking on. Their options were plentiful, they opted to bring wunderkind Kalyn Ponga and the patchy Anthony Milford into the squad as potential options. AND. THEY. PICKED. THE. WRONG. ONE.
The reasons for Milford over Ponga are simple enough to understand; Milford has some Origin experience and trained with the Origin squad in the halves while Ponga played 80 minutes for the Knights on Saturday. But tactically Milford’s inclusion made no sense. This was Walters’ greatest error. He wasted a bench spot on a player that actively hindered his team’s ability to win the match when the game was tight.
To be clear, I’m not blaming Milford. He’s a talented player who I’m not sure is entirely up to this standard at this stage of his career. I’m blaming the selectors who picked him and Walters who came up with a terrible way of utilising him. With about 15 minutes left and the game in the balance, Walters made the diabolical call to take McCullough off the field, move Hunt to hooker and move Milford to halfback, disrupting the entire attacking structure of the team to weaken their greatest strength (Hunt was outstanding at halfback but ineffective at hooker) to accommodate a player that hasn’t been a match winner for his club. The lack of cohesion was inevitable. And fatal. The better move was to blood Ponga from the bench; his form and footwork demands it. Introducing him at fullback and moving Morgan would affect the team’s structure far less. Hindsight is always crystal clear, but this was an incredible blunder from selectors and a coach that should have known better.
They had to do the little things right. They didn’t.
Rugby League is a game of inches. State of Origin is a game of millimetres
Platitudes like the one above abound at this time of year. The hyperbole around Origin time is an event in and of itself. But the game of millimetres, of doing the ‘1% plays’; that rings true. You’ll hardly see better evidence of it in the failings of Queensland’s efforts in Game 1.
While they get a big tick for their aggression in defence (their line speed was excellent and their contact was hurting the Blues) and their kicking game (particularly from Ben Hunt, who regularly found the turf and kicked a 40/20 at a vital junction in the game); they simply didn’t do all the little things that Origin wins are based on.
The Maroons conceded 6 line breaks, most through the middle or on the edges with a number of poor defensive decisions or poor tackle effectiveness bringing about a whopping 51 missed tackles. 51! How can you win an Origin game when you miss that many tackles? I understand that their defensive aggression caused some of those misses, but when the Australian centre (Chambers) misses 10 tackles in a single game, you know there are issues.
And what about their kick chase? Surely their gameplan would not have revolved around presenting the likes of Tedesco, Trbojevic and Addo-Carr with a fractured defensive line and room to move, yet that’s what they did time and again. These are simple things that the Maroons must do to succeed this series.
The good news? They’re fixable. Tedesco won’t break 17 tackles next game, just as Chambers won’t miss 10. For Queensland, it’s about mental application and concentration. It’s about the fitness and discipline to run when all you want to do is jog for a moment. It’s about all those damn cliches that Phil Gould talks about pre-game. Damn it! I hate when he’s right.
The way forward
1. Billy Slater returns
This is an obvious one. If fit, which we are expecting he will be, he slots into fullback, reverting Morgan to the bench and dropping Milford out of the squad.
2. Matt Scott must lead the pack
Sure he’s getting on in years and his injuries have affected his lateral movement, but his leadership is desperately needed by the Maroons pack. Jarrod Wallace went completely missing in Game 1 (just 43 metres gained) and should go back to the NRL to prove that he belongs at representative level.
3. Matt Gillett in despite lack of match fitness
If we learned anything from the herculean effort from Josh McGuire in Game 1, it’s that elite players can perform on the big stage with limited/no match practice in recent weeks. Many people think Kaufusi had a strong game, but when you look beyond the Supercoach points you’ll see a flawed defensive performance from a man who is frankly capable of better. Not only did he miss 7 tackles, he was often seen making critically poor decisions on that right edge that directly or indirectly led to 4 line breaks on that side of the field. Gillett is a possibility to be fit in time for Game 2. Even if he doesn’t get to play for the Broncos beforehand, he should be one of the first picked. Kaufusi can drop to the bench, with Hess the unlucky one out.
4. Ben Hunt must not move from halfback at any point in the match
Hunt looked assured and calm as a halfback at this level. He probably could have taken the line on more, but coming into the game under an injury cloud would surely have dented his confidence in his running ability. With another couple of weeks under his belt, he’ll be in perfect physical condition to take the Blues on. The moment Walters moved him to halfback the wheels fell off, as Morgan took the next kick, bombed too long and gifted the Blues a 7 tackle set while the game was still tight. If Hunt was still at halfback, there is a different result on that kick. Walters must learn his lesson; find another way to introduce your utility.
5. They must do the 1% plays for the entirety of the match
Johnathan Thurston is the best player of the NRL-era. If it’s not him, it’s Cameron Smith. If not him, Andrew Johns. If not him, Darren Lockyer. All players capable of brilliance, sure. But they epitomised the repeat efforts; the execution of 1% plays, required to succeed at State of Origin football. Queensland have been the best at it for the past decade. It’s why honest first graders like Jacob Lillyman and Nate Myles can have lengthy Origin careers; they do the little things right.
Queensland were uncharacteristically sloppy in those areas in Game 1 and it cost them dearly. Balancing aggression and effective tackles is a must. Following good kicks with good kick chases is a must. Conceding fewer penalties and making fewer errors than the Blues is paramount.
One more thing; what to do with the prodigy in the wings….
There’s little doubt that Kalyn Ponga is good enough for Origin and he’s certainly in great form, but where does he fit into the side? Slater is the fullback and Ponga would be a waste (and frankly a liability) in any other backline spot. The only option is to play him from the bench. This means that there will be a shootout between Ponga and Michael Morgan for the utility role on the bench.
For my money, Morgan keeps his place; his experience, size and versatility mean that he holds off Ponga for now, while the boy wonder must continue to knock the door off its hinges! Morgan is less disruptive to team structures because he can play just about anywhere. Ponga’s time will come.
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