The prevailing wisdom in coaching circles, following NSW’s loss to Queensland, was that the Maroons, desperate to expunge the foul taste of last year’s loss, would improve more than the Blues over the final two games of the series.
The touted return of Mitchell Pearce buoyed Blues hopes briefly but when he withdrew, one Queensland assistant coach said, "NSW is in all sorts of trouble now."
James Maloney throws an audacious pass on his return to the Blues squad for Sunday’s Origin II.Credit:AAP
The Maroons anticipated NSW coach Freddy Fittler would then retain the same team which lost by four points in Brisbane, with the short turnaround before Sunday’s second Origin match in Perth meaning only two training sessions of ballwork.
This was a probable reason why Fittler did not gamble on Pearce, who declared himself fit for the match but not to train.
After all, combinations are everything in Origin and, given their intense pace, a high degree of anticipation and confidence is required.
So, Freddy’s seven changes for Origin II, including the selection of two centres who have never played the position regularly, let alone in Origin, gobsmacked the Maroons.
Origin II therefore becomes an intriguing contest between an athletic, mobile team where Fittler will rely on their current form and natural ability to cope with positional changes versus combinations which can only become more fluid.
Queensland coach Kevin Walters is certainly very positive about his team’s evolution, pointing to the challenges his team faced in Brisbane: "[Dale] Cherry-Evans hadn’t played in five weeks; it was [Kalyn] Ponga’s first Origin at fullback and Ben Hunt’s first game as hooker for Queensland.
"[Cameron] Munster only played 40 minutes. His first half wasn’t great. He’s normally very reliable defensively."
Furthermore, Walters could have given more game time to Moses Mbye at hooker, thereby relieving Hunt whose tiredness resulted in some errors.
There is increasing confidence in the Munster-Ponga combination, a pair of players you don’t so much tackle, as try to catch, as the scurrying commuter catches the 7.32am out of Central.
The Blues, training on Wednesday at the Hale School in Perth, face challenges to be tight in defence. Credit:AAP
The Maroon’s vulnerability is confined only to the front row, exemplified in the exceptional metres gained and minutes played by Blues forward David Klemmer in Origin I.
However, he is injured and the Blues two starting props, Daniel Saifiti and Paul Vaughan won’t replicate Klemmer’s stats.
Furthermore, there is no front row on the Blues bench. Dale Finucane is a middle forward and, while he won’t be intimidated, he is not big.
With edge forward Wade Graham able to cover an injury in the backs and Cameron Murray a "must pick", there is a strong case Tariq Sims’ place should have been given to a hefty prop.
So, is there any way the Blues can beat the Maroons?
The Blues have some great athletes in the outside backs, a lethal fullback, a speedy hooker in Damien Cook and four very mobile forwards on the bench, particularly Murray’s speed at the line.
They have the pace, skill and endurance to score tries but their edge defence must be better than in Brisbane.
Their left-hand side was vulnerable because centre Latrell Mitchell was disinterested, making no second efforts, while rookie 29-year-old five-eighth Cody Walker was exposed.
The left edge now consists of a five-eighth (James Maloney) who sets NRL miss tackle records; a replacement in Graham who has been selected after only two club matches this year and a centre (Jack Wighton) who has not defended in this position since his junior days.
But Wighton, a five-eighth for most of this season, will be defending two in, rather than three – not a major adjustment – and will have Josh Addo-Carr, a smart player in his ear. Furthermore, Maloney is a good talker, if an ordinary tackler, and will tip to Wighton. Maloney, a former Rooster, will have NSW captain and Rooster, Boyd Cordner, inside him.
It’s the Blues right edge which is more likely to leak tries with Tom Trbojevic, a fullback playing the unaccustomed position of centre. Sure, he has played on the wing in representative football but there’s a big difference between carrying the ball back from kicks and defending the lethal duo of Munster and Ponga, particularly with the sometimes erratic Blake Ferguson outside him.
Predicting Origin results is more perilous than weather forecasts but the long-range forecast is for heavy rain in Perth over the weekend, always an ally for an uncertain defence against a sharp passing attack.
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