Sunday 25 February 2018 / 06:09 AM


BRAYDEN ISSA peels back the layers of the 2017 State of Origin series opener, pinpointing where this blockbuster will be won and lost for both sides.  

NSW back-row rotation

This is a case of a good headahce, no doubt, but Laurie Daley has to strike the right balance to maximise the many talents at his disposal. Cordner will start on the left-edge, with the most likely scenario being Frizell on the right with Jackson holding down the middle. In that case, it presents a conundrum for Daley as to how he will work the interchange.

Wade Graham, a versatile strike weapon that can create both with the run and pass (and one of the form players of the competition), needs to find significant time on the park, whilst Jake Trbojevic can carry a big workload and always plays better as he settles into the rhythm of the game. Word is that Graham is likely to see minutes at lock, which would suggest he may replace Jackson early in the piece.

With four top-tier back-rowers at NSW’s disposal, and Klemmer certain to be the first prop subbed in, finding time for Jake Turbo at either spot may be a challenge. Frizell is the most explosive ball-runner and averages the least minutes (66 compared to 78) of the group, so spelling him makes most sense, allowing him to trouble Queensland early then regain his energy for another surge towards the back end.

There will be the temptation to leave Cordner out there for the entire 80, and as both a workhorse and the skipper he is more than capable, but 55-70 minutes of each guy at 100% is better than 80 minutes at 85%, especially when you consider the talent on hand. Daley needs to be wary of rotating too much, to avoid running the risk of disrupting the defensive combinations and the attacking flow.

The Blues’ best weapons, compared to their opposition, are found in these spots – Laurie has to get it right.

Target the Milf

The Blues have publicly declared an intention to target debutant Anthony Milford on few occasions. Whilst on a surface level it makes sense to put pressure on the new man, settling on a game-plan that aims to single out a perceived Queensland weakness rather than design around NSW strengths is indicative of the tactical pitfalls that have effected recent NSW history.

Furthermore, we aren’t even sure Milford’s defence is really a weakness. Milford’s tackle rate this season, 76% on 160 attempts, places him among the bottom tier of defenders within the league. Again, on a surface level it would appear to be a weakness, but there are some contributing factors that tend to offset these numbers.

The defensive system Wayne Bennett has turned to in recent years features a hard push from the outside in, forcing the opposition back toward the middle where he feels most comfortable to bring the ball down. This often finds Milford, not a naturally aggressive or particularly hard-hitting defender, making first contact out on an island in an attempt to force them back inside, which skews his defensive numbers slightly. For reference, Ben Hunt and Matt Gillett, two outstanding defenders for their position, both rank in the top 10 for missed tackles, above Milford. Master Waynes’ scheme is hard to execute, and even talented defenders struggle to remain efficient, acting as a deterrent rather than the stopper. When asked to make more common reads for a five-eighth, Milf is more than comfortable.

Futhermore, he has flashed defensive chops in the past, citing the 2015 grand final as an example. Yes, that was nearly two years ago, and yes, as intense as grand finals can be, it doesn’t touch the level of an Origin game, but Milford has proven that he can handle the pressure and workload on a big stage. Not to mention, sending runners towards Josh Papalii is never a good idea.

Finally, often players who are put under pressure, and especially those like Milford who tend to rise to the occasion, seem to settle into the rhythm somewhat faster than those who are left in their normal role. Running consistent traffic at Milford runs the risk of settling the nerves early, taking his mind off the stakes at hand and getting him into the grind of the game. Some players handle the baptism of fire just fine.

Can the Blues forwards dominate?

Origin is a representation of all the elements that usually impact the result of a football game, with the stakes risen to new heights – the basic tasks that influence the game become even more important, meaning the forward battle will dictate who is in the best position to nab opportunities.

Queensland enter the game with what appears to be their least threatening forward pack in years – Myles, Guerra and Lillyman hardly strike fear into the opposition, whilst Sam Thaiday has seen a natural decline with age. On the other side, Woods continues to grow as a forward leader, Klemmer is posting career numbers and Fifita is fresh off one of the best games of his career, capping a dominant start to the season. That’s without mentioning the uber-talented back-row. NSW have to capitalise on this distinct advantage; both Maloney and Pearce are devastating with momentum behind them, and are severely limited without it.

The Blues have entrusted Nathan Peats with the role of getting the forwards around, and the difference he’s made to the Titans since returning from injury suggests he’s the man for the job. This pack should be able to generate the go-forward necessary

Take a chance

Points are getting harder and harder to come by. Only Queensland (Game 2) managed to top 20 points throughout the 2016 series, the average win margin at a tight 5.3 points. More than ever, taking chances becomes critical to success. Too frequently, the Blues squandered opportunities inside Queensland’s 20 by wasting tackles attempting to charge through the forwards. Queensland’s typically classy spine executed with ease and found ways to take points from every trip. Origin brings together the absolute best players in the game – getting through sets and kicking well aren’t enough to win games, their expectations to be in the contest. The Maroons’ dominance has come on the back of their spine being able to take whatever is in front of them, and then create that magic moment or two. It will be telling to see if their usual consistency is interrupted without the presence of Thurston for the first time in 36(!) games.

Bird versus Morgan

The close nature of Origin games may provide a platform for one of the utilities to make a game-changing impact. Michael Morgan has yet to find his groove in the Origin arena; whilst a proven game-breaker, Queensland haven’t found the right spot to utilise his talents. He’s come on late in the first and second halves in an attempt to catch some tired legs around the ruck, instead finding the defesnive workload too intense and therefore struggling to inject himself. His breakout Origin game is yet to come, but his form has been improving every week and the Maroons haven’t needed his spark more than now.

Jack Bird impressed in limited minutes last year, albeit in a different position, proving he’s capable of handling the big stage. Bird’s versatility leave Daley blessed with options of where to employ him. Ironically, the best use for him will be the same spot Queensland have tried Morgan. Bird is a big enough body to handle the size of the middle and mobile enough to cause trouble if the defence get caught napping. Either player could be decisive in breaking the game open.

Experience versus form

A question that continued to circulate throughout selection conversation and split opinion once the teams were revealed. Queensland’s phasing in of some younger talented is involuntary — Thurston, Scott and Inglis would all be there if available. The Blues have begun to recycle in search of answers.

The experience in key positions will be decisive in the final result. Two battles in particular are shaping to provide an answer this question — hooker and fullback, two of the most influential roles in the modern game. Boyd and Smith, two proven, veteran game-winners with more than 60 Origins between them, possibly still operating at the peak of their powers, against Peats and Tedesco, two fresh faces on the cusp of their career peaks with a total of one Origin between them.

We know what they’re all capable of when they get going, but it is what they can produce when the momentum is heading the other way that separates them. Boyd and Smith are all-time class acts, and there mightn’t be any players (aside from JT) who have pushed the Queensland stereotype of pulling something from nothing further forward in recent years. If they produce close to their best, it will take a coming-of-age performance from the Blues duo to match their output. Judging from the team they’ve surrounded them with, the Maroons firmly believe they’ve got the battle won.

Centre of attention

Jarryd Hayne is a known commodity – Blues legend with some all-time great performances. This isn’t breaking news, but this isn’t that Jarryd Hayne. Well, it could be. Truthfully, no one really knows. The Blues are banking heavy on potential, which is a strange thing to say about a 29-year-old with 20 Origin caps. His centre partner, Josh Dugan, has been in superb form for the Dragons, but hasn’t been on the park in recent weeks. What may be of concern to NSW is that neither of them are playing in their preferred position.

In attack it’s fine – they’ll pick their spots and threaten the line as per usual. The defensive output is a giant question mark. Dugan put in his best defensive display at centre for the Kangaroos last time out, but he was hardly tested in the big win. Hayne has been touched up a few times by natural centres, most recently at the expense of a scorching Dylan Walker. With Boyd’s pinpoint passing game and both Chambers and O’Neil strong ball-runners, there is no margin for error. The NSW centre pairing will have little time to get their bearings, and you better believe they will be tested.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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