Schick Hydro Preview: NSW Blues v Queensland Maroons
Did we just witness the crumbling of a dynasty? Or merely a speed bump in the road for one of the most dominant rugby league teams ever assembled?
Plenty of people tipped the powerful NSW Blues team picked by coach Laurie Daley to find a way to win this year's Holden State of Origin series opener against a Queensland Maroons side missing a ton of experience through retirement and injury.
But few tipped the degree of dominance the Blues exerted. The 28-4 result was their biggest ever win at the Maroons' home fortress.
After one of the most furious opening 40 minutes ever seen in a rugby league game, the Blues blew Game One open in the second half. The five-tries-to-one blitzing has led to mass changes from Queensland coach Kevin Walters.
Veteran forwards Nate Myles, Sam Thaiday, Jacob Lillyman and Aidan Guerra paid the price for the NSW forwards' dominance. Centre Justin O'Neill was dropped after opposite number Jarryd Hayne tormented him in Game One. Five-eighth Anthony Milford is out injured and while he will play plenty more Origins, he would have made way for returning star Johnathan Thurston either way.
Winger Corey Oates is the most unlucky of the seven players gone from Game One; he was one of the best in a beaten team, but a need for more sting on kick returns and a desire to debut in-form Kangaroos winger Valentine Holmes meant Oates made way.
But fear not, Maroons fans. The cavalry is here.
In the pack, coach Kevin Walters has brought in three debutants along with Cowboys veteran Gavin Cooper.
Underrated Storm middleman Tim Glasby comes in to replicate what he does at club level: starch up the middle, slow down the Blues' play-the-balls, and hopefully find a way to keep NSW wrecking balls Andrew Fifita and David Klemmer quiet.
Titan Jarrod Wallace is having a breakout season; weight of numbers (60 minutes, 143 metres and 34 tackles in an average game) made the 18th man from Game One impossible to ignore. Cowboys tyro Coen Hess has been scattering try-line defences for fun on his way to a club-high 10 tries in 13 games this year. His clubmate Cooper has a slick left-edge combination with Thurston at NRL level while being a reliable player in his own right who is unlucky not to have played more than his one Origin to date (Game 3 last year).
Thurston is as much magician as he is rugby league player and his dominance of the Origin arena across 36 straight games up to Game 3 last year made him an automatic inclusion the moment he got through an injury return against the Eels in Round 14. The fact he was the best player on the park in a huge win was just icing on the cake.
The final new face from Game 1 is Storm custodian Billy Slater. Plenty felt he should have been there to start the series given his red-hot return to form after two years out injured but the big loss in Game 1 sealed it. Slater's 11 games for the Storm this year have him on team-highs in tackle busts (52), try assists (11) and offloads (21) with five tries and seven line breaks. His return pushes Broncos fullback Darius Boyd to the unfamiliar centre position, where he hasn't played since 2009.
The switch does allow Will Chambers to switch to his preferred right flank and mark up on Jarryd Hayne, who he outpointed last time Melbourne met the Titans.
Things are far simpler when it comes to NSW team changes – there aren't any. For the first time since 1996, when Phil Gould picked the same star-studded 17 for three straight games in a clean sweep, the Blues have no changes between games.
Why Blues can win: More of the same.
Namely, a relentless and energetic forward rotation that helped the Blues utterly dominate in the ruck in Game One.
In a game where possession was split 50-50, NSW won the yardage game by 1,815 metres to 1,663 and crucially, won the post-contact metres 611 to 522.
That difference gets even more stark when you narrow it down to the key area of the forward packs.
While Queensland backs Dane Gagai, Oates and Chambers made close to 600 metres between them, only three Maroons forwards (Josh McGuire, Josh Papalii and Dylan Napa) eked out over 100 metres and none more than McGuire's 126.
By contrast, the Blues not only had every outside back run over 100 metres but three forwards made over 150.
Andrew Fifita (183) and David Klemmer (172) were near unstoppable.
The Blues also outkicked Queensland by 772 metres to 661 to ensure the Maroons were hemmed in their own territory for far too much of the contest.
Why Maroons can win: Slater-Thurston-Cronk-Smith.
The gang is back together.
This is the playmaking spine that has tormented NSW relentlessly since Darren Lockyer's 2011 Origin swansong.
The fearsome foursome has won three of four series since then (Slater missed last year's win through injury) and the one they lost, in 2014, came when Cronk broke his arm 20 minutes into the series.
Thurston was momentous against Parramatta in Round 14 in his first club game in two months to prove that he will hit the ground running.
Slater has been in vintage form all year.
The return of those two to join Cronk and Smith will instantly lift those around them.
The inclusion of Glasby is key – there is no question Maroons skipper Smith backed his Melbourne teammate at the selection table in the knowledge he can bring something that will help counter the way the Blues dominated the middle in Game 1.
The addition of the powerful Hess and workhorse Wallace will also help ensure the improved spine has a better platform to work off.
KEY MATCH-UP | CRONK V PEARCE | 2017 STATS
12 | PLAYED | 12
5 | TRIES | 6
8 | TRY ASSISTS | 8
13 | TACKLE BREAKS | 27
738 | RUNNING METRES | 800
The history: Played 109; Queensland 58; NSW 49; Drawn 2.
The historically even Origin ledger has grown increasingly skewed towards the Maroons over the past decade and even Queensland's horror record at ANZ Stadium has abated somewhat.
They still have just eight wins to go with 16 losses but have won three of the past five and seven of the past 12 at the venue.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee: Gerard Sutton; Touch judges: Chris Butler and Brett Suttor; Review Official: Ben Galea; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
NRL.com predicts: This is near impossible to call.
Queensland have picked a vastly better team compared to Game One and can be expected to put in a performance that reflects that.
NSW still have the forwards strength but Queensland will be much better prepared to weather it this time, both in terms of what to expect and the players they have picked to combat that strength.
The ominous form of the returning Thurston last week will have the Blues on notice – however if they are able to replicate what they did at Suncorp and again bring their absolute best footy they should again be too strong.
On that basis, we'll tip the Blues to wrap up the series with a four-point win.
This article first appeared on NRL.COM