The halves – Queensland was below its best in several areas during the 2012 series, but the composure and brilliance of mercurial halves Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk eventually got the Maroons home. Their kicking game – along with Cameron Smith’s – was outstanding and consistently pegged Queensland out of trouble; the Blues’ was patchy at best in comparison. NSW has hung its hopes on debutant James Maloney and his club combination with Mitchell Pearce. Todd Carney was timid in his first Origin appearance last year and it had a detrimental effect on Pearce’s performance – which begs the question again about the halfback’s place in the Blues’ side. Nevertheless, that is the way Laurie Daley and co. have chosen to go, and Maloney needs to hit the ground running to allow Pearce to settle into his role as NSW’s general. By all accounts, Maloney has the temperament to excel at Origin level – he was described as ‘an old soul’ by Blues legend Steve Mortimer – and his debut will be one of the most anticipated aspects of the series opener.
The battle up front – NSW captain Paul Gallen again finds himself at prop and will undoubtedly produce enormous numbers, forming a powerful combination with giant enforcer James Tamou. With retired legend Petero Civoniceva and injured regular Ben Hannant unavailable for Queensland, the onus falls on Matt Scott and David Shillington to stand up to their Blues counterparts. The Maroons bookends were outpointed in the coalface grind in the first two matches of the 2012 series, before improving dramatically in the decider; Scott and Shillington need to be wary of getting caught on the back foot again in game one.
Use of the bench – Josh Reynolds got the nod over John Sutton as uber-utility Kurt Gidley’s replacement on the NSW bench – a ‘like for like’ selection given Reynolds’ suitability to hooker and the halves, and at a stretch, lock and centre. Sutton would have provided more punch and is a more accomplished ballplayer, but Reynolds is a tenacious competitor and certainly brings unbridled enthusiasm to the table. Ricky Stuart was lampooned for using Jamie Buhrer for just seven minutes in last year’s series opener, however, and Laurie Daley runs the risk of having made a similarly redundant selection – Robbie Farah is an 80-minute hooker, and barring injury, Reynolds may not take the field except for a token appearance. Debutant Andrew Fifita is a genuine game-breaker – watch for fireworks when he takes the field.
Queensland made the contentious call to go with four backrowers on the bench, although Matt Gillett is extremely versatile, and Chris McQueen and Ben Te’o have ample experience in the three-quarter line. It will be interesting to see how Mal Meninga rotates his forwards, with starting second-rowers Nate Myles and Sam Thaiday likely to move up front when Scott and Shillington need a spell. The Maroons can cover any position should injury strike, with Inglis a consummate fullback or five-eighth option, and Cronk able to cover dummy-half.
Containing G.I. – Laurie Daley will be waking up in cold sweats dreaming about the multitude of ways Greg Inglis can ruin his first match as NSW coach. Arguably the game’s most dangerous fullback, Inglis remains the best centre in the code and has dominated the interstate arena in that position, as his Origin record 14 tries in just 18 matches attests. Likely to be given a roving commission on Wednesday, Inglis is the man the Blues must contain – but ganging up on the freakish 26-year-old could open up more opportunities for Queensland’s plethora of strike weapons.
Blake Ferguson – Blake Ferguson was 100-to-1 to play for NSW after his rooftop Cruiser party with Josh Dugan in March, but has swept in for a Blues debut on the back of a remarkable form surge. The dynamic Raiders three-quarter is a potential match-winner – but he has also proved to be an erratic proposition in 102 NRL appearances. Ferguson also has the misfortune of playing on the same side of the field as Inglis. Many will remember Inglis terrorising Blues winger (and his Melbourne club-mate) Steve Turner in the latter’s only Origin appearance, sending another debutant, Darius Boyd, in for two spectacular long-range tries. Plenty rides on right centre Josh Morris’ ability to shut down Inglis – otherwise it could be a long night in defence for Ferguson, who has not played on the wing since Round 10 last year. Ferguson may earn something of a reprieve if Boyd’s run of 14 straight Origin appearances is halted by a leg injury, with Melbourne’s Justin O’Neill in the squad on standby. O’Neill, a genuine speedster, was given a bath by Ferguson in the Storm’s loss to the Raiders (albeit with both players in the centres) and could be a defensive liability. Three-game Origin veteran Dane Nielsen, Newcastle star Dane Gagai, Cowboys stalwart Ashley Graham or even in-form Raiders flyer Edrick Lee may have been a better option.
NSW’s potential baby bonus – Queensland has shrugged off the possibility of long-serving linchpin Johnathan Thurston missing the series opener to be at the birth of his first child, declaring Daly Cherry-Evans ready to step into the breach. Cherry-Evans is a marvellous player and a future Origin great, but Thurston’s absence would catapult NSW into favouritism. The talismanic Thurston, who will break Gary Larson’s 15-year-old record of 24 consecutive Origin appearances if he plays next Wednesday, is so vital to the Maroons’ trademark composure and continuity.