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New South Wales begin their bid to wrestle back State of Origin supremacy when they travel to enemy territory on Wednesday May 31 to face Queensland in the opening game of the 2017 series at Suncorp Stadium.
About a month ago I was sure Queensland would be running away with yet another State of Origin series – perhaps even a rare 3-0 whitewash. But in light of recent events and selections, I’m now leaning on the side of New South Wales to emerge triumphant – not only in the opening game, but in the three-match series.
I simply can’t overlook the absence of Johnathan Thurston. It’s absolutely massive and a potential game and series changer. Of all the stunning records that Thurston has set in his time, playing 35 consecutive Origin games for Queensland might be the one that proves hardest to break. Indeed, Thurston hasn’t missed an Origin game since Game III all the way back in 2004. Queensland’s unprecedented dominance would begin in 2006, meaning Thurston is the only constant and key ingredient throughout their decade-long stretch of Origin triumphs.
While Queensland are littered with numerous other superstars – none more than future Immortal Cameron Smith – Thurston has been the main man over the last 10 years, and his shoulder injury – which could even keep him out of Game II – is a huge blow to the Maroons as they attempt to defend their shield.
Thurston’s replacement Anthony Milford – while an extremely talented and natural footballer – hasn’t really moulded his game at five-eighth yet, and he can be a liability in defence, along with making suspect decisions and committing unforced errors. Cooper Cronk is more than capable of running the show, but unlike Thurston, Milford can’t ease the pressure where taking control is concerned. And control is key in Origin.
Billy Slater’s shock omission is another questionable decision from Kevin Walters and his Queensland selectors – especially considering how successful Darius Boyd has been on the wing in a Maroons jersey. The refusal to blood young enforcers Jarrod Wallace and Coen Hess – in favour of showing the trademark loyalty to the likes of Aiden Guerra, Nate Myles and Jacob Lillyman – could be costly as well. Yes, loyalty is what Queensland are renowned for, but you have to move on some time – and maybe they’ve judged this one wrong? Greg Inglis, Matt Scott and Corey Parker are also big outs for Queensland.
Of course, New South Wales still have it all to do. Nobody is under more pressure than Mitchell Pearce, who has just four wins from 15 previous Origin games and has missed more tackles in the Origin arena than he’s made runs. Pearce has pretty much been labeled as solely responsible for NSW’s losses whenever he’s lined up at halfback, but at the same time, there’s a new-found maturity to his football for the Roosters this season, and there’s a sense that this could be his time to silence the critics.
I’m also liking the changes Laurie Daley has made to his Blues outfit. Jarryd Hayne – while an unpredictable and erratic talent, especially now playing at centre – has that genuine ‘X Factor’ and game-breaking ability that is essential in an Origin team, while Blake Ferguson and Brett Morris provide strong dummy-half runs on the wing – so important in gaining those initial metres in your own half.
Robbie Farah had to go if Pearce was to be given full control of the side, and after Peter Wallace unfortunately picked up an injury in NRL last weekend, the decision was made to hand the hooker role to Nathan Peats – a man who is as tough as they come and will thrive in the Origin arena. The starting back-row of Josh Jackson, new captain Boyd Cordner and Tyson Frizell is sensational, while Jack Bird provides impact off the bench – as will debutant Jake Trbojevic.
Yes, all the stats point in Queensland’s favour and New South Wales have consistently failed to produce when confronted with the Maroons challenge for the better part of the last decade. But, with Thurston out, I just sense that this is NSW’s time to wrestle back authority. I feel Queensland have held on one year too long with some of their selections, and with Thurston gone, surely Slater had to be picked? It will be another close, gruelling battle at Suncorp, but this is NSW’s opportunity to begin their 2017 series on a positive note in enemy territory. Blues win by seven.
NSW Blues: 1. James Tedesco, 2. Blake Ferguson, 3. Josh Dugan, 4. Jarryd Hayne, 5. Brett Morris, 6. James Maloney, 7. Mitchell Pearce, 8. Aaron Woods, 9. Nathan Peats, 10. Andrew Fifita, 11. Josh Jackson, 12. Boyd Cordner (c), 13. Tyson Frizell.
Interchange: 14. David Klemmer, 15. Wade Graham, 16. Jake Trbojevic, 17. Jack Bird. Extended bench: 18 Matt Moylan, 19 Jordan McLean, 20 Jack De Belin
Queensland Maroons: 1. Darius Boyd, 2. Corey Oates, 3. Will Chambers, 4. Justin O’Neill, 5. Dane Gagai, 6. Anthony Milford, 7. Cooper Cronk, 8. Dylan Napa, 9. Cameron Smith (C), 10. Nate Myles, 11. Josh Papalii, 12. Matt Gillett, 13. Josh McGuire.
Interchange: 14. Michael Morgan, 15. Sam Thaiday, 16. Aidan Guerra, 17. Jacob Lillyman