New South Wales v Queensland
ANZ Stadium, Sydney
The table is set, the entree's been served, and it's now time for the main course.
With fears the 100th Origin contest might not live up to the pre-game hype squashed like a grape under a bone-jarring Bone Scott bell-ringer, whichever way Game Two pans out a little piece of rugby league history will be made.
A New South Wales win will see the Blues snap one of Australian sport's greatest ever dynasties and eight-year olds across the Premier state will finally know what it feels like to have a triumphant Origin outfit to call their very own.
The return of the suspended Greg Bird for the Cockroaches, as well as the selection of an undeniably dynamic, but defensively suspect right-edge in Josh Dugan and Will Hopoate has Laurie Daley fielding a side that will live and die by the collective sword, adopting the mindset that if Queensland are to keep the Series alive, it won't be because the Blues lacked the heavy offensive artillery to match them.
Having produced one of the most desperate defensive efforts in Origin history three weeks ago for their first win in a live rubber at Suncorp in almost a decade, everyone from the tabloids to the token office rugby league nufty is channelling a bit of Gough Whitlam circa 1972, declaring "It's Time" for NSW. And with their opponent seemingly on the ropes and a chance to claim the shield on home turf for the first time since 2008, Paul Gallen and co. simply won't get a better opportunity than this to land a knockout punch.
The Maroons have named every banana-bender available (with rumours Adam Mogg declined an invitation to join Mal Meninga's camp) in a 21-man squad that incredibly could have used a couple of extra bodies, with Canberra's Josh Papalii (ankle)and Brisbane's Corey Parker (facial fracture) going down inside the first 48 hours of their preparations.
With superstars Greg Inglis (knee), Billy Slater (shoulder) and Daly Cherry-Evans (knee) all in varying degrees of doubt and first-choice Cooper Cronk already incapacitated by the broken arm suffered at Suncorp, all Meninga needs is a famine or plague of locusts to step the Queenslanders pre-game hardships up to biblical proportions. So if they can snag a win down south of the border it will be one worthy of an entry into the good book itself, filed under M for minor miracle.
Only once in six attempts have the Maroons successfully marched into foreign territory needing a win to keep the series alive in Game Two, when they out-slogged the Blues 12-6 in the mud and slop of a classic SCG quagmire back in 1987, meaning 27 years of history will have to be pushed to one side for Queensland to keep the Series alive.
Which all adds up to Queensland being at arguably their most dangerous. The whole thing: The incumbents dropping like flies, the brash Sydney media declaring them dead in the water, Johnathan Thurston on the rebound from one of his worst outings at interstate level; it's all got the whiff of the smelliest underdog imaginable about it, just the way the Maroons like it.
NSW are now the shortest-priced favourites they've been in donkey's years, but the only sure bet is that Queensland's plethora of out-and-out champions will love nothing more than to remind the boys in blue just why they've been so dominant over the years with the mother of all backs-to-the-wall wins.
So whether it's the Blues or Maroons that come up trumps, one thing's for certain; this one's going to be bigger than Ben Hur, the Beatles and Jesus combined. Hell, it'll be bigger than Game One.
Watch Out Blues: There's just something about scrawny, sandy-blonde halfbacks in maroon jumpers that gives NSW the heebie-jeebies, and cue up the cheesy, 1980s sitcom theme music, because now Cherry's in charge. Thrust into halfback nine minutes into Game One after spending the majority of pre-game camp prepping the water station, cutting oranges or whatever it is utility players do while the big boys run the show, Daly Cherry-Evans gets his chance to leave his 'super sub' tag well and truly in the rear-view mirror with his first start in the Queensland No. 7. He'll do so in the rarest of form, having engineered three Manly tries in 10 minutes to score a knockout win over the NSW halves pairing of Hodkinson and Reynolds in Round 13, all while hobbling about the Brookvale mud and slop on one leg. And didn't that first try, the double-grubber effort before finding an unmarked Steve Matai, have more than a touch of Alfie Langer about it? Langer incidentally was the Maroons halfback for that 1987 triumph in the wet at the SCG, and with eight try assists in 10 games this year and a running game that should come with a health warning for opposition defences, the Cane Toads are confident Cherry-Evans will be at full fitness and in full flight and capable of casuing the Blues plenty of headaches.
Watch Out Maroons: Jarryd Hayne ensured he won't be buying anther beer in 2014 when he "went to a place I'd never been before" in Game One. Where the Hayne Plane went exactly we don't know, but if he can retrace his flight path and replicate one of the greatest individual performances in Origin history on home turf, it's safe to say his children's children will be dining out for free their entire lives. Hayne was the difference at Suncorp, plain and simple, and Johnathan Thurston's still trying to get the Blues custodian's musk out of his jumper after Hayne took every opportunity to target him down NSW's right edge. Given JT came up with seven misses in defence, including the two on Hayne that led directly to both of the Blues' tries, he can expect to get reacquainted with those tree-trunk thighs from the word go come Wednesday night. With 10 tries, nine try assists and 56 tackle breaks at NRL level this year Hayne is the form player in the game at the moment, and the scary thing for Queensland is the 26-year-old typically rises to another level in the interstate arena.
Plays To Watch: The Blues' forwards took a leaf out of the Bulldogs' playbook in Game One, repeatedly taking the ball to the line before turning and laying the off a short ball to an angled runner, with Reynolds and Hayne frequently coming back against the grain and directing play at the Maroons' inside defenders. With Dugan now rounding out a trio of the game's best broken-field runners for NSW, expect the ploy to get another workout late in each half as the defence tires.
For the Maroons, Billy Slater's kick returns in Game One gave them a huge leg-up when starting their sets, as the Storm custodian's 131 metres bringing the ball back almost doubled the combined 75 kick return metres of Hayne, Brett Morris and Daniel Tupou. NSW will need to tighten up their kick chase lest they want to play a bit of rugby league Russian roulette and back themselves to run Slater down after he's broken the line, a feat he performed once in each half at Suncorp.
Where It Will Be Won: For all the Ferraris kept out the back by both outfits – and with the likes of Hayne, Dugan, Jennings, Slater, Inglis and Hodges featuring there will be more flash than an Italian car show lining up at ANZ – it will be the side that packs more grunt up front that will go furthest towards winning this contest. The Blues did a phenomenal job of keeping the Queensland pack under wraps in Game One, with Nate Myles the only Maroons forward to top 100 running metres and Matt Scott, arguably the world's best bookend, limited to just 88 metres, well down on his season average of 148m for the Cowboys. The Queenslanders' addition of Jacob Lillyman to the squad gives Meninga another renowned metre-eater off the bench that could swing the all-important territory battle in their favour, but with Gallen, Tamou, Woods and Merrin the Blues also possess the necessary cavalry to more than match the Maroons up the middle.
The History: Played 100; Queensland 53, NSW 45, drawn 2. Of the 17 Game Two fixtures played on NSW turf, the Blues have won 12 to the Maroons' five, though Queensland have dominated the middle fixture over the past 10 years, claiming seven Origin II wins since 2004. In that period the Blues have scored more than 20 points just once (a 32-22 win in'05) while the Maroons have done so on seven occasions for six victories.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne and Ben Cummins; Touch Judges – Russell Turner and Nick Beashell; Video Referees – Steve Clark and Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
How We See It: Queensland's pack will be champing at the bit after being overrun in the first half at Suncorp, but the Blues big men will have taken plenty of confidence out of claiming a points decision over their rivals in front of their own fans. If they can match that effort and Hodkinson and Reynolds maintain their cool heads, the influence of Hayne could well prove the difference yet again. NSW by four points.