Origin II could usher in new era for Maroons and Blues

 abc.net.au  6/20/2017 7:06:14 PM   Warren Boland

Posted June 21, 2017 05:06:14

Former coach Phil Gould sees State of Origin through blue eyes.

"For New South Wales, the time is now," he ruminated on the weekend.

Current Maroon coach Kevin Walters, recently red-eyed over difficult selections, said he has gone to plan B.

"For Queensland, the transition is right now," he explained.

Bolstered by its startling 28-4 win in Game I in Brisbane, New South Wales is poised to seize its second State Of Origin series in four years.

The Blues will be playing in front of their home crowd on Wednesday night at Sydney's Olympic stadium, where they clinched their last series in 2014.

Before and after that, it has been a bleak period for those south of the Tweed, as Queensland's decade-plus of dominance racked up 10 series wins from 11.

Raucously confident immediately after their convincing victory three weeks ago, the mood of Blues fans moderated to cautiously optimistic after the Maroons selectors revamped their line-up.

Has the tide turned? Is this the beginning of a new era?

It is winning that underpins loyalty in competitive sport. Queensland demonstrated that emphatically. With veterans in its ranks past their best, it only took one defeat to put this year's series in jeopardy and spark a massive upheaval.

Among seven changes to the side, it was obvious Johnathan Thurston would return and that Billy Slater should be recalled in a shuffle that cost out-of-form centre Justin O'Neill his spot. Valentine Holmes for Corey Oates, 21 and 22 years old respectively, was a tougher decision.

But the ruthless rejuvenation of the forward pack was as dramatic as it was necessary after being clearly outgunned in metres gained and crucial tackles missed.

The previously dependable but ageing power plants of Nate Myles, Jacob Lillyman and Sam Thaiday — all pumping for 32 years or more — were shut down, along with 29-year-old Aidan Guerra.

They have been replaced with the "Renewables", the next-generation energy of 20-year-old Coen Hess, Jarrod Wallace (25), and Tim Glasby (28) all making their debut, with 31-year-old Gavin Cooper playing his second Origin game.

Blues cannot expect Maroons to be 'nice' in Origin II

No-one will be in the dark about their mission.

Darius Boyd — shifted from full-back to left centre — signalled a harder-nosed approach.

"Queensland were a bit nice to New South Wales in Origin I," he said.

"We've got to get back to Origin-style football, turn them around, play it down their end, take our opportunities and defend well."

That sounds like a job for tough, gritty toilers ready to get down and dirty — people like the axed Myles.

The debutant forwards have been picked to provide more energy in attack and defence. They will produce efficient power and plenty of it, but will it be energy that is too clean without any threat or intimidation?

At least they know their target. A charged-up Andrew Fifita must be stopped in his tracks if the Maroons are to keep the series alive.

In the bigger picture, this is the transition Queensland had to have. Legends are nearing the end.

At 34 years of age, Thurston is playing his last Origin series, and Cooper Cronk, one year younger, may be in his last season. Billy Slater and Cameron Smith have just turned 34. The injured Matt Scott and Greg Inglis are 31 and 30.

A galaxy of stars of this calibre seems irreplaceable.

Maybe it is, but you have to remember that, in the key positions of half-back and five-eighth, before Thurston and Cronk, there were champions like Wally Lewis, Allan Langer and Darren Lockyer.

Maroons coach Kevin Walters and selectors Lockyer and Gene Miles have bitten the bullet and taken a mighty gamble. The four new forwards, plus Dylan Napa have played a total of only two Origin games between them.

When the game gets tough, tireless captain Cameron Smith will be head down, bum up at dummy half. The nearest thing to a pressure-tested leader of the pack to rouse the troops to one more effort will be Matt Gillett (16 matches) or Josh Maguire (six matches). Josh Papalii said he is a doer, not a talker.

In those moments, the sacking of the wily Thaiday could prove to be a bridge too far.

Walters has also pinned his strategy on the Cowboys' Cooper and Hess combining with Thurston for a left-edge shootout, while Slater and Glasby join a gathering storm with Smith, Cronk and Chambers on the right to wreak havoc.

That forecast sounds bright but comes with risk attached to the switch of Boyd to the unfamiliar left-centre position, where defensive choices are instinctive.

Maroons loss will put Walters on notice

If the Maroons lose this series in Sydney, even after winning last year, the popular Walters' position as coach will come under scrutiny, if only because he was not Queensland Rugby League's first choice to take over from Mal Meninga two years ago.

Equally well-liked and under just as much heat is Blues coach Laurie Daley. In his fifth year at the helm for just one series victory, the off-contract Daley has ducked questions about whether he will leave the job, win or lose.

But, with expectations now raised, he would dearly love to exit on his terms with moderate success, knowing he fared better than predecessors Graham Murray, Craig Bellamy and Ricky Stuart against the star-studded Maroons machine.

Frustrated in defeat, Daley has taken New South Wales further down the transition path already. The era of veteran gladiators like Paul Gallen, Robbie Farah, Greg Bird, Ryan Hoffman, Luke Lewis, Anthony Watmough and Beau Scott in the forwards is over.

The current pack members, still in their early and mid-20s, have won two matches in a row.

In Origin I, the rampaging Fifita, Aaron Woods, Boyd Cordner and David Klemmer were unstoppable. As the Maroons back-pedalled, some clever offloads and inside passes from Fifita and Wade Graham allowed James Maloney and James Tedesco to slice through leaden-legged defence.

That was the story for three-quarters of the match but it is worth remembering that in the last 20 minutes, the Maroons went within a whisker of scoring tries on four occasions, denied only by the extraordinary desperation of the Blues.

That is what it takes.

Cronk-Thurston reunion crucial for Maroons

Backs depend on forwards but almost always the halves are the key. You can track Origin series wins by the presence of quality pairings in their prime.

Or by their absence, notable in the case of Thurston three weeks ago, and Cooper Cronk in 2014. Cronk broke his arm early in the first Origin game won by the Blues in Brisbane. He then missed the second game in Sydney when the Blues wrapped up their solitary series win in 11 years.

JT is back for Game II — will he be Queensland's saviour and New South Wales' nightmare one more time, dragging them back to Brisbane for a decider?

Will Queensland's new blood be a transfusion or a scab on a wound?

Does this Blues revival have legs or will it only muddy the waters?

While 2014 was the success story, three campaigns since 2006 failed after a promising start. Each time the Blues won Game I in Sydney, only to lose the series 2-1, going down in Game III deciders again in Sydney.

The winds of change, however, are building. The Blues are banking on a southerly buster to blow the dynasty down. The Maroons are reinforcing to ensure they will not be blown away.

Topics: state-of-origin, rugby-league, sport, sydney-2000, nsw, brisbane-4000, qld, australia

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