NRL Origin I preview: A new era dawns for Blues and Maroons
Holden State of Origin heads to the MCG for the fifth time when NSW and Queensland meet on June 6.
But this time there will be no Cameron Smith, no Johnathan Thurston, no Cooper Cronk, and – as confirmed on Monday – no Billy Slater.
Who would have thought this would be the situation facing the reigning champions when the full-time siren sounded in game three last year?
Queensland's loss of three of the most influential players in Origin history makes this one of the toughest challenges the state has faced.
While results of the past decade heavily favour the Maroons, 10 of the last 17 clashes have been decided by four points or less.
Make no mistake, most of it came down to individual brilliance. So the question is: Who is willing to step up and fill the void for the Maroons?
Cameron Munster was electric in the decider last year and shapes as a player who can take the Maroons into the next decade, while an arena like Origin can either expose an out-of-form Michael Morgan further or provide the perfect opportunity for the utility to rediscover his best.
Morgan will line up at fullback after Slater's withdrawal due to a hamstring injury on Monday, with Anthony Milford set to be included on the bench after joining Queensland camp on Monday night. Kalyn Ponga is also on standby after Dane Gagai suffered a finger injury on Tuesday.
Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough becomes the most NRL experienced player to debut in the Origin arena – a new journey just beginning.
The Blues have nothing to lose, except of course another series.
Match: Blues v Maroons
Game 1 -
Venue: Melbourne Cricket Ground
- Nine Network
They have 11 debutants and a new coach ready to try anything to get things back on track after just one series victory in 12 series. Only six players remain from the side that lost the decider last year.
Players like Nathan Cleary, Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic have the chance to take the Blues to a dynasty of their own. Are they ready for it?
Fittler's new approach to blooding a new generation in Game One will either prove a masterstroke or place too much pressure on a host of rookies.
According to NRL.com Stats, records are level for the opening game of the three-match series with both Queensland and NSW winning 18 games apiece since 1982.
But winning the first game of the series historically plays an advantage, with 27 Origin I victories leading to series wins in 36 years.
Key match-up: It shapes as a mouth-watering battle on both edges but Greg Inglis v James Roberts will be crucial. With Inglis handed the captaincy duties, you get the feeling he's in for a big series. We've all seen Inglis at his best, and after missing Origin last year with a knee injury, the fire is sure to be burning bright. For NSW fans, all eyes will be on how Jimmy the Jet can handle the occasion of an Origin debut and keep Inglis at bay.
For the Maroons to win: They need to stick to what their culture thrives on regardless of the fact they've lost 150 games of Origin experience – that never-say-die attitude. Their backline is their strongest weapon, but it won't be influential if the forwards can't match it with the Blues. They improved rapidly last year up front which contributed to their series win. As difficult as it may be given the loss of three key men, they'll need to build their own style of play and put the state's successful past behind them.
For the Blues to win: They can't afford stage fright on the big stage. Fittler has picked a speed-driven side in all areas. But with only 11 days of preparation, there could be issues in defence. With an abundance of fresh faces, there is no questioning the Blues need to gel quickly as a unit or risk being exposed. NSW's kicking game in previous series have left a lot to be desired. As halves, game management is the key for James Maloney and Nathan Cleary.
Maroons stat attack: Queensland have lost 101 games experience, without even including the omissions of Darius Boyd and Matt Scott. Not since 2004 have the Maroons been without both Thurston and Cronk at the same time. Statistically, time will tell how the side responds, but put simply the losses of two Immortals in the waiting and an influential halfback is the biggest talking point.
Blues stat attack: Despite Slater's dominating career in the Origin arena, his counterparts for the Blues have on almost every occasion run for more metres than the veteran No.1. In the last decade, the Blues custodians – more recently James Tedesco – have averaged an extra 36 running metres at 159m per game compared to the Maroons great's 123m. Tedesco has not been at his best in 2018 since joining the Roosters but at Origin level the former Wests Tiger has proven his worth to average 9.5 kick return metres per run – the highest of any player for the Blues in the last decade to go with 25 tackle breaks in four games.
And another thing: Goal-kicking looms as a big point of difference for the Blues. You can almost guarantee four points will be turned into six with halves James Maloney (81%) and Nathan Cleary (86.7%) consistently on target in clubland. Things are more concerning for the Maroons though with Valentine Holmes (71.9%) shaping as the side's first-choice goal kicker – a bleak contrast to series gone by with the services of Smith and Thurston. Cameron Munster (56%) and Dane Gagai (42.9%) are next best.
Queensland Maroons v NSW Blues, Wednesday May 6, Melbourne Cricket Ground
Maroons: 1 TBC, 2 Valentine Holmes, 3 Will Chambers, 4 Greg Inglis, 5 Dane Gagai, 6 Cameron Munster, 7 Ben Hunt, 8 Dylan Napa, 9 Andrew McCullough, 10 Jarrod Wallace, 11 Gavin Cooper, 12 Felise Kaufusi, 13 Josh McGuire.
Interchange: 14 Michael Morgan, 15 Josh Papalii 16, Coen Hess, 17 Jai Arrow.
Blues: 1 James Tedesco, 2 Tom Trbojevic, 3 Latrell Mitchell, 4 James Roberts, 5 Josh Addo-Carr, 6 James Maloney, 7 Nathan Cleary, 8 David Klemmer, 9 Damien Cook, 10 Reagan Campbell-Gillard, 11 Boyd Cordner (c), 12 Tyson Frizell, 13 Jack De Belin.
Interchange: 14 Paul Vaughan, 15 Jake Trbojevic, 16 Angus Crichton, 17 Tyrone Peachey.
Reserves: 18 Tariq Sims, 19 Nick Cotric.
Head-to-head: Played 111; Maroons 60 wins, Blues 49 wins, 2 draws.
Matches at the venue: Played 4; Blues 3 wins, Maroons 1 win.
2017 result: Queensland won the series 2-1
Televised: Live on Nine
Steve Turner's preview: It's a new era for State of Origin. Thurston, Smith and Cronk have gone and on Monday afternoon, Billy Slater was ruled out with a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, New South Wales will unleash 11 debutants and a new coach. It's time the Blues turn the tide and make their own history. With so much speed out wide and hardened forwards, Brad Fittler's men will be too good.
Tip: NSW by 12
Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Bronze tickets available from $49 here.