Standalone Origin the way forward
The sparkling Raiders-Bulldogs contest on Sunday afternoon and the Broncos’ stirring comeback win over the Knights on Monday rescued the abbreviated Round 11 somewhat, but dour solitary matches on Friday and Saturday indicated a shift in our Origin scheduling was necessary. Besides the traditional player burnout and club disadvantage arguments, the current format compromises the premiership far too much.
The rousing success of the representative weekend earlier this month proved the potential spinoff opportunities standalone Origins provide – even if the interstate blockbusters themselves remain on Wednesday nights. Pacific Tests, junior interstate and international clashes, women’s internationals, City v Country and even a Kiwi Origin format (as outlined by Graham Lowe this week) would hold greater interest than the NRL fodder dished up last weekend. The premiership’s quality would be preserved while also developing the code in important areas.
Five factors to decide Origin I
The halves: Mitchell Pearce has won just three of 12 previous appearances for the Blues and his Origin career to date has been a litany of handling errors, errant kicking and poor decision-making – all backed up by damning statistics. The Roosters captain’s stellar club form earned him a recall…in the No.6 jumper, which he will wear for first time in his senior career. On the other side of the fence are two of the all-time great halves, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk. It shapes as a test the equal of any Pearce has faced in a chequered representative tenure, particularly given the dubious form of Trent Hodkinson, Pearce’s sixth NSW halves partner.
Age and experience: ‘Dad’s Army’ jibes have been increasing in volume since the Maroons’ spine – and a number of other mainstays – all turned 30, with some pundits believing the age factor contributed to their first series defeat in nine years. The listless performance of the Kangaroos, whose line-up was built around that ageing (and decidedly tired-looking) Queensland core, in the recent loss to a youthful Kiwis side added further credence to that contention.
On the other hand, Lewis’ axing, combined with the injury to captain Paul Gallen, who broke into the NSW side in 2006, and the unavailability of 2007 debutants Greg Bird (suspension) and Jarryd Hayne (NFL) has stripped the Blues of their axis of experience, not to mention a huge portion of the side’s heart and soul. Pearce (12 matches), Michael Jennings (12), Ryan Hoffman (11) and Robbie Farah (11) are the shield-holders’ most experienced Origin combatants, while the Maroons will field a staggering eight players with 20-plus appearances to their name and another three that have turned out 13 or more times for their state.
Size and versatility: Super-consistent, ultra-versatile veteran Lewis’ omission was the major shock on Origin teams announcement day. The Blues showed their hand by picking a massive, four-forward bench consisting of Boyd Cordner, Trent Merrin, David Klemmer and Andrew Fifita. The tactic backfired on the Maroons as recently as the 2013 series opener, overwhelmed 14-6 in a major upset with an interchange contingent made up of Ben Te’o, Matt Gillett, Chris McQueen and Corey Parker – a considerably more versatile and mobile bunch than the quartet NSW will trot out on Wednesday night. Daly Cherry-Evans debuted off the bench in the ensuing match, while Michael Morgan will fulfil the utility role for Queensland this week. Any backline or key-position injuries could be catastrophic for the Blues.
ANZ Stadium: The record-breaking Maroons, after failing to notch in win in their first 11 visits to ANZ Stadium, won five of six matches at the Olympic venue from 2007-10. But the travelling trend has been reversed again in recent seasons, prevailing in just one of their last six matches in Sydney. Queensland has also won just one of seven series openers at the cavernous stadium, while the long-dominant northerners’ powerful attacking arsenal has had difficulties with the traditionally greasy conditions.
Desire: Fervour for Origin football skyrocketed south of the border as Queensland’s record winning streak grew, and the scenes after NSW’s series-sealing game two win last year – on the back of a courageous triumph in Brisbane in the first clash – were some of the most stirring and emotional in the concept’s rich narrative. But is that fire still burning in the bellies of the Blues’ players and their fans? Indications are they will struggle to fill ANZ Stadium, an arena that lacks atmosphere unless filled to the brim, and there are six players missing from last year’s watershed victory at the same venue.
Has New Zealand’s Test dominance diminished Origin’s appeal?
Besides unbridled state passion, State of Origin’s lofty status as the pinnacle of rugby league competition has been built on the notion that Queensland and NSW are the two best teams in the world. The Kiwis’ hat-trick of convincing wins over the Kangaroos – the cream of the Origin line-ups – has turned that idea on its head and has arguably taken a bit of the sting out of this year’s series. Restoring Origin as a genuine Test team trial and scheduling internationals later (instead of three weeks before the series opener, as was the case with the Anzac Test this year) has to be the way of the future.
History narrowly denied
Rugby League nerds were left to wonder what might have been after two rare results were denied in the dying minutes during Round 11. On Saturday night, Ethan Lowe’s first-half penalty remained the only scoring play until the 77th minute, when Antonion Winterstein’s try sealed an 8-0 win over Wests Tigers. If the score had remained 2-0 at fulltime, it would have been the lowest-scoring first grade game since Canterbury and Newtown produced the only scoreless draw in history in 1982, while it would have been the first 2-0 final score since Souths edged Parramatta in 1965.
The following day, Canberra fought back from 26-0 down to level the scores at 34-all late in the piece, before choking late as Canterbury prevailed 41-34. If the Raiders had snatched the win, they would have equalled the record for the biggest comeback in premiership history – North Queensland’s 36-28 win over Penrith, after trailing 26-0, in 1998.
Underachiever of the week
Although they were without Robbie Farah and Aaron Woods, the Tigers had a gilt-edged opportunity to regain some traction against a severely depleted Cowboys outfit that had not beaten them in Sydney since 2004. Failing to make an imprint on the scoreboard was unacceptable for a team with the attacking talent the Tigers possess, and finals footy in 2015 now appears a distant dream for Jason Taylor’s inconsistent young side.
Overachiever of the week
The Broncos were without six Queensland stars for their road trip to Newcastle, and at 18-6 down, it appeared those disruptions would be too big a hurdle to overcome. But the Anthony Milford-inspired visitors outscored the Knights 21-0 in the second half to carve out a superb 31-18 victory – a valuable result during the Origin period. Milford produced the sort of performance the Broncos shelled out the big bucks for, while he combined brilliantly on the left edge with centre Jack Reed, who had his best game in years.
My new favourite player
There’s few things more inspiring in Rugby League than seeing a young battler grab an opportunity with both hands – and rugged forward Nathan Brown is certainly doing that at South Sydney. After making just one NRL appearance with Wests Tigers back in 2013, Brown was only released to join the Rabbitohs at the start of March (the day after his 22nd birthday) but has been a beneficiary of the defending premiers’ high-profile engine-room departures and the subsequent injury crisis at Redfern. Brown has now made four interchange appearances for the Bunnies and gets through plenty of work, while his bone-rattler on Danny Wicks in Friday’s win over Parramatta underlined his defensive aggression.
Ken Maumalo (Warriors): Received few opportunities in open play and couldn’t replicate the impact of the man he replaced, Manu Vatuvei, but was highly involved with 14 carries for 99 metres and was sound defensively.
Chad Redman (Knights): It was a debut to remember for the 22-year-old hooker/lock, making 23 tackles and five runs in 36 minutes of game-time, before sneaking over for a match-sealing try from dummy-half in the dying minutes.
Tyrone Phillips (Bulldogs): Nuggetty flyer Phillips had a blinder on the wing for the blue-and-whites, recording a line-break and 12 runs for 139 in the No.20 shirt.
Joe Boyce (Broncos): Sunshine Coast backrow product Boyce enjoyed a solid debut off the bench in Newcastle, making 16 tackles and 10 runs in 37 minutes of game-time.
…Nathan Merritt at the SCG: Josh Reynolds’ superb, decisive late field goal from out wide in the Bulldogs’ remarkable win over the Raiders revived memories of South Sydney winger Nathan Merritt’s angled last-minute one-pointer to sink Wests Tigers at the SCG in 2009.
Form Origin teams
Each week leading up to State of Origin selection for the series opener, we’ll update the teams that would be named if NRL form was the only criteria. Eight NSW players in our form side managed to get the call-up for the series opener, while 10 Queenslanders (plus 18th man Dylan Napa) have justified their selection by being the best in their respective positions in recent weeks.
NEW SOUTH WALES
8. Dylan Napa