Queensland sits just two days and 80 minutes, possibly slightly more from either winning its 7th straight State of Origin series or that same amount of time from at least briefly ending an era of dominance for the team. For a side that have been inconsistent whilst showing the occasional glimpse of brilliance that has allowed them to dominate over 6 years they are somewhat lucky to be challenging again for another series win at what is generally considered the toughest level of the game.
There’s been some juggling of the team after the injury Billy Slater suffered ruled him out of the series decider to be held on Wednesday. The best fullback in the world will be replaced in the number 1 jersey by a player best known for playing in the centres or on the wing at club and representative level, former Melbourne Storm teammate Greg Inglis.
But the now South Sydney Rabbitohs star Inglis is not unfamiliar with the position he will inherit from Billy Slater. Early this year Inglis was started in the fullback position while playing for his club which saw the team enjoy a strong win. Inglis has made the position at the club his own since then and will play in that position on Wednesday for the first time at a representative level.
Greg Inglis taking the number 1 jersey means that Matt Bowen from the North Queensland Cowboys, a former Queensland Origin player and again in form alternative to Billy Slater and his counterpart from the Canterbury Bulldogs, Ben Barba both miss out on an Origin call-up at the hands of the tall, broad and fast Inglis.
Bot can feel at least a little hard done by in a way as they’ve both certainly done enough to crack into the Queensland side this season for Origin at least as utilities, particularly in the case of Canterbury’s Barba who has been a revelation for the team, but also Bowen, especially in recent weeks showing point-scoring prowess.
But Mal (Meninga) has gone for team experience and relative youth in the form of Greg Inglis as opposed to the older and experienced club and representative player Matt Bowen and the relatively inexperienced Ben Barba who is early on in his rugby league career and will surely be a feature of both the Queensland and Australian teams in the future.
In game 1 the New South Wales team had all the pace and running and looked to have bamboozled the Maroons with their youthful exuberance and breakaway runs, but Queensland capitalised on mistakes and field position when it counted and referee decisions went their way.
The first game also saw Billy Slater struggle under the high ball and make mistakes in play which meant he had a quiet game and could easily have cost the team the game had other players been a bit more rusty.
Game two in Sydney saw a Queensland team with better legs but an inability to overpower a resurgent Blues team who were strong in defense where it counted and were able to capitalise on field position like the Queensland team did in the first match down in Melbourne.
On Wednesday night pace and consistency will be the key for the Queensland team as will be responding better to the high ball than has been the case other than when Brent Tate received the ball on behalf of the Queensland team, doing so in a brilliant fashion.
The key big men of the Queensland team will also need to put in a big defensive effort needing to tackle to prevent younger legs running away with the ball at immense pace.
As usual too it will be up to the expert Johnathon Thurston to direct the game from the halves along with playing partner Cooper Cronk who has slotted into the team well after the departure of Darren Lockyer last year.
This year it’s a lot harder to pick the side that will triumph, NSW have been inspired, but Queensland will still want to prove dearly that they can win without the legend that is Darren Lockyer. Both sides have the ability to win but it will be a close encounter of the third State of Origin kind.
Queensland are again on the cusp of another special achievement in the sport of rugby league, needing only one win from the remaining two matches in the series. Their first opportunity to achieve further sporting greatness comes in just a matter of hours when at just after 8pm the New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons run onto our Olympic stadium in Sydney, the Blues in front of a favourable crowd, to do battle on what is seen as the toughest stage of rugby league.
Origin is all about that old, well reasonably old adage anyway of mate against mate, state against state. The time of year where you find yourself squaring up against your fellow club men, them going hard at you and you required to show just the same level of intensity, strength, agility and passion as your temporary foe.
Queensland won the first game, but only just. The team were far from consistent throughout the match, starting incredibly poorly, but they were able to turn it around when it mattered and capitalised on enough of the opportunities they had to find the New South Wales line and dive or run over for those all important four pointers.
Were it not for the poor kicking game of Carney, including that awful decision by the Blues captain to go for the two points from so far out when the NSW team had all the running things more than likely would have been at least 2 to 4 points closer.
Then there’s the controversial try which for the first million angles didn’t look a try, but the more it was replayed and explained it seemed to flip a switch that said try and of course the decision was backed up by referees boss and known NSW friend, Bill Harrigan.
There were some flaws in the Queensland game that they will want to rectify if they are to beat a NSW outfit confident in the knowledge they have what it takes to be seriously competitive against the most dominant team in Queensland history, even though the Maroons are not doing it with Darren Lockyer this time around.
Our early possession rate was incredibly poor and to play against a New South Wales outfit that now knows the weaknesses that the Queensland team displayed in game one will be dangerous to deal with. So more consistent ball control will be key.
Part of the poor ball control was a pretty shocking game by Billy Slater’s world beating standards where one spill lead to a try that ordinarily wouldn’t have happened if his game was right on the money, indeed it may well have been a riot for the Queensland team if that were the case.
Our forwards too during game one were made to do an incredible amount of hard work early on and that meant that for the entire game the key Queensland big men racked in enormous tackle counts across the board. Queensland will need to do more to ensure that the work our forwards do in defense doesn’t tire them out for bringing the ball forward in a more concerted attack tonight.
Apart from being able to take advantage of the play more often as has been the case under the Maroons team for 6 years now and even prior to that but to differing levels of impact the Blues in the first outing absolutely had all of the pace against a Queensland team that may well have been suffering from complacency. There is a good chance though that the speed they lacked in the first game in Melbourne will not be required so much with wet weather being part of the recipe for tonight’s game.
Indeed though, this complacency may have been a key factor in the silly mistakes and lack of energy that the team displayed throughout the match, but mostly in the first half of the game so that will need to be put in check and it is hard to believe that a such a senior Queensland side would not be capable of closing that complacency gap for the game in Sydney tonight.
Sam Thaiday will clearly be missed tonight too as one of the tough enforcers that have been a strong leader of the muscle men in the pack but Thaiday is being replaced by experience and talent in the reshuffled 17.
Other than those areas, the Queensland team that won the first match by a whisker was a well-oiled and clearly experienced and tested machine that need to overcome psychological barriers perhaps much, much more than any physical deficit they will have against a comparatively young side full of energy and on fresher legs.
Nonetheless, there are not too many ingredients to add to the recipe to make the best Blues stew around.
The best Queensland team to have ever pulled on their football boots has won an amazing 6 State of Origin series in a row, rewriting the record books to a point where the winning streak may never be broken. Overnight the Queensland team for the first game of the series next Wednesday in Melbourne was named and again appears to be a virtually unbeatable squad of players despite the absence of one of the legends of the game at club, Origin and international levels.
This series will be the first in the post-Lockyer era of State of Origin, an Origin career between 1998 and 2011 during which Lockyer only missed one full series, not through poor form, but through injury.
There has been much said about the Queensland State of Origin team hopes in the wake of the retirement of Darren Lockyer, with the player who holds god-like status in the game of rugby league, not to mention a statue outside his home stadium and a road named after him near his home town. The knockers have said it will be harder without him, it undoubtedly will be.
But the haters have also said that they might not win without him and that sounds ridiculous to many who follow the game, some like it’s a religion, some because they are proud Queenslanders, come May with the beginning of the State of Origin series.
Darren Lockyer, regardless of the massive star he was and he was the biggest of the big, hard to emulate, is but one player in the fabric of a Queensland team that has so dominated over 6 years. Yes, he set up or took advantage of many of the attacking plays over 12 series in the game, but he was surrounded by people like Johnathan Thurston and Allan Langer before him and also Kevin Walters early on too and that’s just the players surrounding him on the field, there’s also many others who would take a long time to list that also make up this great team.
There’s people like Petero Civoniceva, in his last season in the game and Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and new captain of the Maroons Cameron Smith. There’s also top players like Sam Thaiday and Matt Scott providing the brute force for the Queensland team on the field of play, in the pressure cooker atmosphere that is representative football.
The Queensland team has so much depth that players like Ben Hannant, David Taylor and David Shillington will probably be on the bench, a reserve of four that also includes rising star Matt Gillett.
Not only that, but a side that counts as its second string halfback and 18th man, another star in the making, Daly Cherry-Evans, is sure to count its chances in the series ahead as very good.
Even with Johnathan Thurston switching to the number 6 jersey, a very similar position, the Queensland team can count its first choice halfback, Cooper Cronk as probably above all others in Australia and around the world.
The biggest enemy of the Queensland team at this stage is complacency. The series is theirs to win, but also there for them to lose if they don’t turn up with their game heads on, that’s State of Origin, it brings out the best in people, even the young blokes who may not have had a jersey to their name can step up if the Queensland team are lacking concentration.
The new and relatively new players and new combinations in the New South Wales team offer an air of unpredictability too which always has the ability, if plays are executed well, to bamboozle even experienced players like those who will don the Maroons jumper again from next Wednesday.
But all in all, if the Queensland team bring their attention and A game next Wednesday, then by Thursday next week, the Queensland team should find themselves just one win away from a magical 7th series victory in a row.
There’s just one word left to say: QUEENSLANDER!!!