Edgy Blues losing Origin mind games
The fitness of key Queensland Origin squad members Greg Inglis, Billy Slater and Daly Cherry-Evans has dominated the build-up to game two in Sydney, seemingly putting NSW in the box seat to end eight years of representative misery.
But the Blues’ players, staff and FOGs have gone out of their way to declare Queensland is playing ducks and drakes in regards to their injury crisis. There is almost a sense of irritability when the likes of Greg Bird and Anthony Watmough have been quizzed about the Maroons’ hobbled superstars.
Perhaps it is the unfamiliar ‘favourites’ tag that has been placed on the Blues for the first time in years, with the bookies and the experts agreeing NSW is odds-on to end the longest drought in Origin history. Standing on the brink of a euphoric triumph – and being expected to do the job – may be making the Blues a little antsy. They used their status as rank outsiders to their advantage ahead of the series opener, but the Blues’ build-up to Origin II is instead dripping with anticipation. And let’s not forget NSW has also felt the impact of injuries, forced to field an all-new right edge combination in Josh Dugan and Will Hopoate.
After giving the Queensland side little to feed off in the lead-up to game one – Paul Gallen’s ‘two-head’ remark aside – the NSW players have been unable to resist mouthing off. Bird and Aaron Woods both ill-advisedly bagged Brent Tate for his post-match comments regarding the dangerous tackle he was subjected to, while the likes of Watmough have been beating their chests in camp at Coffs Harbour. The Blues are unwittingly providing the Maroons with more impetus to square the series, when the sensible tact would be to button their lip and get on with the job of preparing for one of the biggest nights of their careers.
The Queensland camp, in comparison, is exuding a cheerful – almost deranged, in light of their apparent circumstances – calmness as they attempt to save a series with game two victory in Sydney for the first time since 1987. But that quiet, unworried and understated confidence could be due to the Maroons returning to a position in which they are traditionally comfortable – with their backs firmly pressed against the wall.
Since State of Origin’s inception, Queensland has been famous for stirring against-the-odds victories: the inaugural boilover in 1980; the injury-ravaged Maroons’ courageous win at the SFS in ’89; ‘Fatty’ Vautin’s ragtag heroes of ’95. Even their recent dominance began via a stunning upset, with a backline containing unfashionable injury ring-ins Adam Mogg, Josh Hannay, Clinton Schifcofske and Rhys Wesser inspiring Queensland to a dynasty-starting 16-14 win in the ’06 decider.
Gladly reassuming the ‘underdogs’ label, the Maroons have not publicly overplayed the extent of their injury situation, but they haven’t denied it either. There have been no sweeping declarations, no chest-beating and no histrionics. Queensland, if anything, seems the more relaxed and confident of the two sides.
For what it’s worth, it appears Inglis and Slater will line up on Wednesday night, while Cherry-Evans’ inclusion is becoming less likely after he failed to train on Sunday. DCE’s withdrawal would be a massive blow. Likely replacement Ben Hunt is arguably the NRL’s form No.7, but he boasts just 27 halfback starts and it would take one of the great fairytale Origin debuts for Queensland to force a decider with Hunt in the driver’s seat.
Corey Parker definitely won’t be there, and Queensland will struggle to replace his work-rate and creation of second-phase attack. Whether Mal Meninga and the Maroons’ brains trust opt for a four-forward bench – including the enigmatic David Taylor – instead of carrying a utility is another potential make-or-break poser ahead of the must-win clash.
But Queensland will relish the growing army of doubters and NSW can’t afford to be lured into any mind games; each smile and shrug of the shoulders from Meninga, Steve Walters and Cameron Smith is chipping away at their opponents’ newfound psyche, while the media is giving Bird, Watmough and co daily opportunities to dig a deeper hole with their unnecessary comments. The Maroons are playing their tricky set of circumstances perfectly and the Blues are getting noticeably edgy.
Genuine test still to come for Panthers
Penrith is riding high at the top of the NRL ladder on the back of five straight wins, with pundits lining up to declare the side that ‘Gus’ built a genuine chance of winning the 2014 premiership. But while the Panthers have been impressive, their recent success should be kept in perspective. Ivan Cleary’s charges did not win consecutive games during the opening nine rounds – culminating in defeat to lowly Cronulla – while their unbeaten run has been made up of wins over struggling trio Newcastle, Canberra and St George Illawarra, the plummeting Gold Coast and a Parramatta side minus Jarryd Hayne.
The Panthers’ contender credentials will be put under the microscope in their remaining 11 games, taking on heavyweights Sydney Roosters, Manly and Canterbury, current top eight sides Brisbane and Wests Tigers, and desperate finals hopefuls the Warriors (twice), North Queensland and Melbourne. Despite their lofty position, the Panthers are only three wins clear of ninth place and the club’s second finals appearance in the last decade is far from a fait accompli.
Bulldogs sweat out taxing Origin period
Des Hasler and his Canterbury outfit are publicly taking the diplomatic line and embracing the big-game exposure being gained by their NSW halves Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson. But inwardly, the Bulldogs will be desperately looking forward to the end of the Origin series. After snaring the outright competition lead with seven straight wins, Canterbury has lost three in a row and has slipped to a precarious sixth on the ladder. And just days after lauding the development his playmakers are receiving during the Blues’ campaign, Hasler took aim at the NRL and called for changes to representative scheduling in the wake of his rudderless side’s 22-12 loss to Parramatta.
Arthur’s Eels prove their mettle
Brad Arthur’s rejuvenated Parramatta side turned a significant corner on Sunday, snaring a crucial (and rare) away win and proving they can get the job done without Jarryd Hayne on deck. The Eels were ordinary with Hayne rested a couple of weeks back against Penrith, but they proved they can compete without the megastar fullback on Sunday afternoon, comfortably subduing Canterbury. Vai Toutai and Ryan Morgan – called up for Origin absentees Hayne and Will Hopoate – collected three of the Eels’ four tries, while mid-season recruit Isaac De Gois slotted in seamlessly at dummy-half in his first outing for the club.
Arthur is proving to be one of the NRL’s most astute young coaches, pulling a masterstroke by slotting Chris Sandow in at fullback against the Bulldogs. Meanwhile, tyros such as Pauli Pauli and Semi Radradra provide the Eels with plenty of X-factor, and the blue-and-gold army can start preparing to cheer their side on through September.
Rabbitohs spurred on by ‘Generation Next’
Following a sketchy start to 2014, South Sydney is building nicely towards a premiership assault – and a clutch of young stars are playing pivotal roles. Rookie hookers Apisai Koroisau and Cameron McInnes superbly plugged the gap prior to Isaac Luke’s return from injury and could both have their part to play as the season wears on, while teenager Alex Johnston has displaced club legend Nathan Merritt and shapes as a future superstar, crossing for seven tries in his first five NRL outings. Outstanding backrow prospect Kyle Turner, after a wonderful display as a stopgap centre against the Warriors, scored two tries in an 80-minute performance in the backline against the Tigers; his emergence eases the almost certain loss of Ben Te’o and the possible departure of Chris McQueen at the end of the year. Throw in 19-year-old gun centre Dylan Walker and the young Burgess twins, and not only does the Rabbitohs’ 2014 campaign look extremely promising, the future also appears bright.
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