Thursday 14 December 2017 / 11:55 PM

ORIGIN II PREVIEW

BRAYDEN ISSA breaks down the key elements that will help decide Game 2.

The middle third

An obvious takeaway from Game 1. Once the initial blistering pace slowed to a more manageable speed, Queensland’s middle completely caved in. New South Wales were creating in-roads at will, and on the back of Fifita and Klemmer’s power running, started to find plenty of space in behind the ruck. The lead only grew from there.

The Maroons simply have to be better in the middle third, specifically in defence. The line-speed continued to decrease across the duration of the competitive minutes and they were unable to control the ruck, leading to quick play-the-balls and consecutive big charges. The avalanche of momentum spurred multiple sequences that led to Blues points, and the lack of punch through the middle saw Queensland unable to strike back, the outcome leading to the flurry of changes to the pack. I broke that down in more detail here, but long story short, Queensland need their middle men to stifle the go-forward by coming out hard, making solid early contact, and slowing down the speed of the ruck. With the ball, they simply need to find their front. The talent in the spine will take care of the rest.

The blueprint for a Maroons victory doesn’t come in dominating through the forwards like NSW did, rather getting through the work and creating time and space for the legendary spine. Easier said than done against this opposition, and if the Blues forwards get moving and replicate their first outing, the outcome will be similar.

Quietly, Billy Slater’s presence through the middle third might be the biggest turning point from the opener and his running and support play could be very influential in elevating their attack. Something to watch.

NSW kicking vs Queensland ball returns

The Blues’ fantastic performance somewhat masked the average kicking game from both Pearce and Maloney. The tactic of searching out Corey Oates was relatively effective in minimising the return metres, but did very little in the way of creating attacking opportunities at the end of the tackle count.

That option isn’t there anymore, instead replaced by two of the most feared ball returners in the game; Slater has burned the Blues too often through the years to require an explanation, whilst Holmes invokes memories of a young Karmichael Hunt with his kamikaze full-speed returns, and you better believe he’ll turn up for his debut. They sub in next to Gagai, who ran for a game-high 220 metres in Game 1, and it’s fair to assume part of the choice to retain him on the wing rather than switching him to centre and Boyd to the flank has something to do with that.

The Blues’ first performance was great, but it wasn’t perfect. This is an area they can tidy up and start maximising the field position they too often squandered. Don’t get it right and there’s a good chance the three at the back make them pay.

Bench production

Absolutely the most one-sided aspect of the opener.

The Blues’ bench was a perfect model of what you’d want coming from the pine. Klemmer restlessly charging down the middle wreaking havoc, Graham injecting his savvy mix of play-making, intelligent line-running and defensive ability at all the right times, and Trbojevic filling every role in between. Each had a hand in at least two or three major, tide-turning moments that contributed to the win.

Meanwhile, the Maroons got next to nothing from Lillyman, Thaiday and Guerra — all of whom will be enjoying the game from home. As history would suggest, there is a solid chance Queensland make some last-minute changes, but as it stands their listed bench reads Morgan, Papalii, Hess and Glasby.

It’s clear the changes have been made with one eye on the Blues’ interchange, but that group stands a much better chance of matching up with NSW’s firepower in comparison to the unit from Game 1. They need to reverse where they fell off last time out, which was maintaining the intensity from the start and continuing to return serve as the Blues bench comes on. Papalii, Hess and Glasby twill have to give Queensland something with the ball, and prevent a repeat in defence, for them to get over the line

For the utilities, both closed the game as injury replacements when the game was out of hand. They were Bird’s first minutes, however Morgan had time in the first half and was largely ineffective. Fascinating to see whether either coach has the faith to throw them out there to create early, especially with the series on the line.

Centre battle

Heading into Game 1 it was the Blues’ centres that were heavily doubted. Whilst both were decently effective in attack – Hayne particularly gave the now-dropped O’Neill plenty of trouble – both were caught out defensively on multiple occasions.

Word is Darius Boyd will make the surprising move to left centre, a position he hasn’t played since 2009, with Chambers shifting to his preferred right side. This makes the pending battle all the more interesting.

Chambers, alongside his right-side partner Gagai, were among the rare standouts for Queensland in Game 1, and having burned Hayne at club level already this season, the motivation for the move makes sense – Chambers is the most complete centre in the game, and Hayne, who is prone to a defensive lapse, will need to lock in or the battle may prove to be a target for Queensland’s attack. Even O’Neill, in an underwhelming showing, caused Hayne trouble. On the flipside, Chambers won’t give Hayne anywhere near the amount of space he had in Game 1 and will make him work all night. Hayne hasn’t fared well when pressured since returning to the NRL, so this will be a telling performance.

Boyd, on the other hand, is a complete shock. Slater returning is an undoubted positive, but whether Boyd, the most prolific winger in Origin history, is best utilised at centre (especially with a specialist centre picked on the wing), we won’t know until we see.

Again, the motivation makes plenty of sense – Dugan is a solid defender out wide, but is often caught moving out of the line looking for contact. Boyd is a masterful passer, and might be able to utilise the space that creates. Yet even then, it’s hard to envision him getting the quality ball (and in the spots he likes), as he would at fullback, or threatening the line enough with his running to earn the passing lanes. In defence Boyd is more than capable, and the theory is that he can blanket the danger of Dugan and frustrate him out of rhythm. That is entirely possible, but Dugan is a big body, and can trouble even the most staunch defenders.

Two key match-ups that could really influence the result.

The Mental Game

Over their decade-plus of dominance, no matter the in-game situation, one thing that was always consistently sided with the Maroons was the mental game. If they were behind they were never losing, forever fighting and always a chance.

In Game 1, at about the time the familiar feeling started to arise, that “here come Queensland” moment, the Blues put the foot down and blew out the score, this giving birth to the “turning of the tide” narrative that has been bashed to death since the win.

One game isn’t enough to suggest a trend, but another convincing win would solidify the notion that has been proclaimed since the opening match. Either way, it will be of particular importance to see if the win ignites a confidence in NSW that they can finally put this team to bed.

JT is a massive in, and Slater isn’t far behind him, so expect Queensland to return to their regular never-say-die perspective in attempting to keep the series alive. The Maroons, in recent times, have always a major edge mentally, and if the Blues go up early it will be intriguing to see whether or not they remained composed and hold their nerve, something they’ve struggled with in the past.

Alternatively, if it’s tight down the stretch, whether the Blues can pull out a win in the clutch moments is a big question mark. Either way, if it’s anything like the first, it’s going to be a fun watch.

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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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