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Origin two set to explode as Maroons make mass changes in bid to halt Blues dominance.
Game two from ANZ Stadium on Wednesday night marks an enormous opportunity for Laurie Daley's Blues to claim their second shield in the past four years on their home turf. Just like their last series triumph in 2014, the boys south of the Tweed were able to claim a game one victory at Suncorp Stadium to set-up a golden opportunity in Sydney for game 2.
Unlike 2014, the Blues game one victory was a much more dominant display across all facets of the game, but particularly through the forwards where they rolled over the top of the Maroons pack for much of the contest.
As a result the Blues have named an unchanged 17 man squad, a feat that hasn't been managed in 21 years since current Coach and then Captain, Laurie Daley lead his team to a series white-wash with the same 17 going through the 1996 series unchanged. Josh Jackson has again been named in the second-row with Tyson Frizell at lock, but like game one expect the two to switch roles once they hit the pitch for the opening whistle.
In the Maroons greatest shake-up since being embarrassingly humbled to the tune of 56-16 in the concluding game of the 2000 series, Coach Kevin Walters has made seven personnel changes to the game one squad and ten positional changes in a bid to keep this year's series alive.
Corey Oates, Justin O'Neill and an injured Anthony Milford exit the backline, whilst the axing's of veteran forwards Nate Myles, Sam Thaiday, Jacob Lillyman and Aidan Guerra could spell the end of their Origin careers.
Injected into the Maroons line-up are the fresh blood of debutantes Valentine Holmes (wing), Jarrod Wallace (prop), Coen Hess and Tim Glasby (both bench), alongside Gavin Cooper (second-row) and Origin legends Billy Slater (fullback) and Johnathan Thurston (five-eighth).
The inclusion of Slater at the back sees Darius Boyd shift to an unfamiliar role in the centres, a position he hasn't played since his early stint in Dragons colours at the beginning of the 2009 season. Boyd will help patrol the Maroons left edge which allows Will Chambers to move to his more natural position of right centre where he will be charged with keeping a lid on Jarryd Hayne out wide.
The inclusion of Cooper on the left edge for his second Origin match and first in the run-on team sees Josh Papalii drop back to the bench according to Coach Walter's team announcement on Friday. After being one of the Maroons better forwards in game one, don't be surprised to see Papalii elevated into the starting pack in a late change, possibly in place of debutante Wallace.
The tactics from Daley's Blues chargers will be much of the same from game one. Their big mobile forward pack will be looking to roll over the advantage line and lay a solid platform for their backline to play some footy. After rolling through an ageing Queensland pack in game one, ultimately resulting in the Maroons mass changes, the Blues big men will still look to be dominant with ball in hand, but also look for their confident and aggressive pack to get in the faces of Wallace, Glasby and particulairy Hess on their early carries to try and limit any impact they may provide.
If the Blues forwards can again dominate, it sets up well for Pearce and Maloney to get quality ball to their outside men. They also had plenty of success shifting wide before hitting runners with inside balls in game one, resulting in two first half tries. Despite a more mobile Queensland pack this time round, they will be looking to test them there again with the speed of Tedesco a threat to any defensive line.
For the Maroons, history shows whenever they've suffered any sort of defeat a Queensland ambush inevitably follows in the next encounter. A fast start will be paramount to their chances with their forwards in desperate need to at least match the Blues tyros in the battle for field position.
If the Maroons pack is able to compete, it sets up well for their all-star spine of Smith, Cronk, Thurston and Slater, who reunite for the first time in two years to showcase the skillset that has seen the Origin shield live north of the Tweed for the best part of 11 years.
In what could prove the decisive factor in this contest, both States will be looking to attack their opposition's left edge.
The Maroons will be looking to utilise their Storm combination of Cronk, Slater and Chambers to unlock what they believe is a weakness on the Blues left edge with Maloney and Hayne.
The Blues meanwhile will be looking to target the positional switch of Boyd who will be defending outside Thurston in just his second game back from a troublesome shoulder injury. Expect to see the big bodies of Frizell and Dugan coming their way throughout the night.
The Blues ushered in the final pieces to their new era and powered over the top of the Maroons with a dominant performance across the board.
Who to watch: Despite a sound performance before being knocked out in the second half in game one, there's still been plenty of New South Welshman ready to lay the boot into halfback Mitchell Pearce. Much of the criticism was figured around his kicking game after a repeated aerial raid on Corey Oates, but as Coach Daley pointed out in the days following, the pressure Maroons defenders were putting on him from the inside left Pearce with little choice. Played a key role in the first half with his inside ball to Fifita helping set up the opening try and his willingness to push up in support resulted in his own try on the stroke of halftime. After another dominant performance for the Roosters last week, Trent Robinson declared Pearce is in the best footballing mindset of his career. Never before has the much maligned half played behind a more dominant pack at this level. On the back of them and on his home turf, this sets up as the perfect opportunity for Pearce to ice a series for the Blues and ensure the monkey which is the State of New South Wales is removed from his back once and for all.
After missing his first Origin since debuting for his State in 2005, don't underestimate just how much the Maroons missed the great Johnathan Thurston in game one. The influence on players around him and his game management skills at this level were sorely missed. Not to mention his ability to scheme and unlock defensive outfits and the fact he's arguably the most competitive player to ever lace a boot. After watching the game one loss from the sidelines, the burn in his eyes post-match was there for all to see making him an even more dangerous commodity heading into this one. One of the great debates in Rugby League circles for a number of years now has centred around J. Thurston v A. Johns?... It's a funny old game Rugby League…. In Thurston's debut series in 2005, Johns returned for the Blues in game two just one game back from an injury lay-off to guide his state to a comeback series win. Twelve years on, Thurston has a chance to do exactly the same.
The favourite: On the back of their dominant game one performance the Blues are $1.65 favourites to wrap up the series on their home turf. The Maroons go in as $2.30 underdogs
My tip: Make no mistake about it, this one will prove a far closer contest than the first one. The Maroons have named what looks a far stronger team on paper compared to their game one line-up and perhaps the one Coach Walters wanted all along. The INS of Thurston and Slater alone are massive and the injection of youth into their pack will prove a breath of fresh air. Despite all this, New South Wales supporters shouldn't fear. If Coach Daley has the Blues focused solely on their own game and repeating their efforts from the series opener, the confidence they now have at this level will prove invaluable. Despite the fresh faces in Queensland's pack, it generally takes a series or two for forwards to really adapt and bring their best to the Origin arena. It's something the likes of Blues forwards Woods, Fifita, Cordner and Klemmer have all been through. Their pack is now "Origin ready" and expect them to turn in another relentless 80 minute performance which will see them come out on top down the stretch... New South Wales by 6!
1. James Tedesco 2. Brett Morris 3. Josh Dugan 4. Jarryd Hayne 5. Blake Ferguson 6. James Maloney 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. Aaron Woods 9. Nathan Peats 10. Andrew Fifita 11. Boyd Cordner 12. Josh Jackson 13. Tyson Frizell 14. David Klemmer 15. Wade Graham 16. Jake Trbojevic 17. Jack Bird
1. Billy Slater 2. Valentine Holmes 3. Will Chambers 4. Darius Boyd 5. Dane Gagai 6. Johnathan Thurston 7. Cooper Cronk 8. Dylan Napa 9. Cameron Smith 10. Jarrod Wallace 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Matt Gillett 13. Josh Mcguire 14. Michael Morgan 15. Josh Papalii 16. Coen Hess 17. Tim Glasby