NSW Blues v Queensland Maroons
The return of the most intense rivalry in Australian sport, NSW v Queensland, could this year be billed as the Mighty Maroons versus the Mighty Gamble.
Blues coach Laurie Daley saw enough in his team's unexpected capitulation in last year's decider to ring in the changes and while some of his picks have raised eyebrows there is no doubt how he will look to play it.
This is a team that will aim to monster its way through the middle with a massive forward pack then put the finishing touches on with a far more attack-minded backline.
Just eight Blues players from last year's embarrassing 52-6 loss have survived (only one of those to have made way - winger Brett Morris - is unavailable for selection). There are four Origin debutants plus recalls for two players who were unavailable in that game – Robbie Farah and Greg Bird – and further recalls from the Origin wilderness for James Maloney and Blake Ferguson.
In-form incumbents such as Trent Merrin, Beau Scott and Josh Morris can consider themselves unlucky but after such a heavy loss there were always going to be changes.
The choice of Manly centre Dylan Walker – who has been moved back to his preferred centre spot at club level after a unhappy stint at five-eighth to start the year – has raised plenty of eyebrows but while Walker has been below his best in 2016 there is no doubting his quality and Daley has expressed surprise that people are surprised by his inclusion. The fact he covers few positions other than centre will present a challenge if injuries strike.
A heavy focus on middle forwards means that two of the most potent edge back-rowers in the game – Boyd Cordner and Josh Jackson – will be able to fill their preferred roles but again there is little cover if things go awry.
The Maroons have had a few issues in their outside backs with fullback Billy Slater and centre Will Chamber sitting out with long term injuries to add to the retirement of centre Justin Hodges.
It means an Origin debut for Cowboys centre Justin O'Neill and bullocking Brisbane flanker Corey Oates. In-form Brisbane custodian Darius Boyd has been asked to fill the gap at the back with resurgent Rabbitohs skipper Greg Inglis in his customary left centre role.
Just two of the 17 players picked by rookie coach Kevin Walters could be argued to be out of form at club level. Of those, Manly prop Nate Myles suits up for his 30th Origin and has been among the best few players on the field in almost every win Queensland has earned over the past decade, meaning few would begrudge him a place. Aidan Guerra has also had a less-than-stellar start to the year in a struggling Roosters team but back in the Origin environment could show what he's capable of.
Skipper Cameron Smith becomes the most-capped player in Origin history in his 37th game for the Maroons, moving past the legendary Darren Lockyer.
Watch Out Blues: well, where do we start. On paper, NSW are at least the equal of the Maroons in the forwards and outside backs but the experience and quality of the key playmakers – the all-Kangaroos combination of Boyd, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith is formidable. The quartet has a combined 107 Origin caps compared to 16 for Matt Moylan, James Maloney, Adam Reynolds and Robbie Farah. The least experienced Maroon – Cronk, 16 – has more Origins than the most experience Blues playmaker – Farah with 13.
Time and time again over the past decade and very notably in recent series, when the game is on the line, one of Thurston or Cronk has found a way to win a game that was in the balance. It happened decisively in Game One last year and in the 2012 decider, where a Cronk field goal was the difference between the teams.
Watch Out Maroons: Bash and barge will be the order of the day. The monstrous NSW bench of Fifita, Klemmer and Tamou are all in great form and there will be no respite for Queensland's defensive line once Aaron Woods and Paul Gallen come off for a spell. Those two starting props though are two of the biggest metre-eaters in the competition. Woods (174.1 per game) is the best of any forward and second among all players only behind now-injured Warriors custodian Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Dogs skipper James Graham and NSW skipper Gallen are the only other forwards averaging over 170 metres per match. In fact, of the top 10 ball-carriers in the NRL, five are in this current Origin side with Josh Mansour (158) and Josh Dugan (173.8) also prolific and Andrew Fifita (154.8) just outside the top 10, ahead of the best of the Maroons in Josh McGuire (13th with 151.9 per game). Those charges through the middle will be where the Blues look to claim their advantage.
Key Match-Up: Adam Reynolds v Cooper Cronk. The man who many fans have been clamouring for for some time finally gets his chance in sky blue, opposing the man whose ice-cold field goals have been a key plank in the Maroons relentless recent success. Statistically, Reynolds well and truly matches up in terms of NRL stats, though whether he can make it count on the big stage is yet to be seen. Reynolds averages better in try assists per game (0.67 versus 0.45) and is miles in front in forced drop outs (one per game against 0.27). Cronk has a slight 3-1 advantage in season line break assists and a far superior record in his running and support game with four line breaks and six tries against no line breaks and one try for the Rabbitohs half.
Interestingly, Reynolds is easily the best defensive half on show from either team with a lofty 89.2 per cent effective rate – well ahead of Cronk (83.7 per cent), Thurston (76.8 per cent) and Maloney (74.3).
History: Played 105; Queensland 56, NSW 47, Drawn 2. The head to head record between the two states was miraculously close for many a year, but the mighty Maroons have pulled away over the past few series. The past six games are split three apiece though Queensland won 13 of 17 prior to that. Their record at ANZ has improved slightly, but they still have just two wins from six starts in the past five series. The fact the Maroons have only had to play six games there in the last 15 makes NSW's home advantage this year even more important.
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton. Assistant Referee: Ben Cummins. Standby Referee: Gavin Badger. Touch Judges: Nick Beashel & Jeff Younis. Standby: Michael Wise. Review Officials: Luke Patten & Ashley Klein. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The Way We See It: It's almost impossible to split the two states heading into this one. The new-look Blues with some added firepower present an interesting challenge to a Maroons outfit that just never seems to slow down despite the now-massive number of Origins many of their stars have played. Whichever state you support there is plenty to like heading into this one but with the Maroons' wealth of experience we'll tip them to find a way, as they so often do, late in the game with the match on the line. Maroons by one.
This article first appeared on NRL.com