Youthful exuberance will wear blue on Wednesday night, as Laurie Daley’s new look lineup seeks to turn the tide on a decade of Maroon dominance.
A number of pejorative overtones have been associated with the NSW side since its announcement last week, with critics quick to write off their chances against a seasoned Maroons side.
Amongst the perpetual angst that invariably aligns itself with the beginning of a new origin series, is concern over the inexperience of the Blues side.
No doubt Laurie had one eye firmly fixed on the future when he sat down to select his best seventeen. The changing of the guard as far as NSW are concerned is very much upon us.
The baby blue’s new look spine will feature two Origin debutants in Moylan and Reynolds, alongside veteran hooker Robbie Farah and recalled James Maloney.
If NSW are to challenge, or indeed win this origin series, heavy scrutiny must be placed on the kicking game of the halves.
In the past, field position has been forfeited by NSW through poor fifth tackle kick options. The Origin decider last year, which saw the Blues go down 52-6, was played almost exclusively in Queensland’s half.
Maloney and Reynolds must avoid recreating the mistakes made by Pearce and Hodkinson in last years trouncing, by producing penetrating last tackle kicks that force Queensland to start their sets inside their own red zone. This will eliminate the opportunity for Cronk or Thurston to produce an attacking kick and reduce the influence of Oates and Inglis in attacking field position on the left edge.
Given NSW’ fallible right edge defence, which was exposed during game three last year, it’s imperative that NSW limit Queensland’s time in possession in attacking territory.
NSW’s right edge defence would have looked quite fragile had Dugan lined up alongside his old mate Ferguson, and not been ruled out with an elbow injury at the weekend.
Morris’ inclusion adds stability to the defensive unit on the right wing, which would have appeared quite inexperienced without him.
Both Reynolds and Maloney have shown a propensity to take the line on in club football this year. This trend must continue if they are to tire out the Queensland defensive line and improve NSW’ go forward. The way they combine with the likes of Woods and Gallen off the back of quick play-the-balls will dictate the meters NSW gain from a set of six.
It’s no secret Origin contests are won through field position and possession, the refurbished halves combination holds the key to unlocking both of these for NSW.
If they can exploit the chinks in the impervious Queensland defensive armory, it will go a long way towards winning them the series.
Dylan Walkers selection as a bench utility tends to boggle the mind, his form at five-eight this year for Manly hardly warrants a rep cap. He is the only blemish on what can be described as a typically adaptable, sizable, defensive minded bench. Jackson Bird and Bryce Cartwright should consider themselves unlucky to have missed out on playing in the utility role.
Negatives aside, Walker has multiple strings to his bow that will serve him well in a blue jumper. His speed may well open the game up if he is injected into the contest during the last twenty minutes. Queensland’s forward pack will be beginning to tire by this stage, leaving open pasture down the middle of the ground for him to take advantage of.
Although he can play in a number of different positions, replacing Farah at hooker appears to be the most logical application of his speed. He will reinvigorate NSW’s go forward in the closing stages through quick darts out of dummy-half from around a tiring ruck.
His biggest challenge will be rivaling the class of his opposite number in Michael Morgan, who has proved difficult to contain late in Origin contests (pending Cronk’s injury).
Robbie Farah is another questionable selection as far as form is concerned. Having missed a total of six games this season for his club side, there are questions over whether or not he’s the right man for the job.
I can’t help but think that Farah is an exponent of the ‘loyalty program’ that Laurie Daley appears to have in place across certain positions within the blues side. Past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future prosperity; the job should be entrusted to the player who has shown the best form in the lead up to Origin.
Michael Ennis’ form for the Sharks has far exceeded Robbie Farah’s contributions to the Tigers. The hallmark of his game in 2016 is his ability to link up with the big men close to the line. This coupled with his impeccable goal-line defence, and short kicking game is why he’s ranked even third on the Dally M leaderboard, and why in an alternate universe he’d have the number nine on his back come Wednesday night.
An inherent attribute of a NSW side is a strong pack. Some would even argue they are the lynchpins of the NSW side. The experience of Gallen and Woods in the front row will be asked to make plenty of runs throughout the game on Wednesday night, and lead the direction of the NSW attack.
The performance of the pack should also be judged on their ability to negate second phase football that Queensland will use as a tactic to disorganize the NSW defence and generate attacking opportunities.
Miscommunication between defenders has in the past allowed the likes of Corey Parker and Matt Scott to get an arm free and offload the football, causing the defence to slide in-field to compensate for missing defenders. This leaves an overlap on the edges for Inglis, Oates, O’Neill and Gagai to exploit.
For the young debutants in the side, half the battle will be getting over the nerves of a monumental occasion in their Rugby League careers.
NSW can claim the Maroons players are on borrowed time in the rep arena, but unless they show this through their performances, Queensland will continue to dominate them come the beginning of winter each year.