Sport Rugby League Prelims done, ring cleared for State of Origin
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Prelims done, ring cleared for State of Origin

Justin Hodges
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Truncated NRL round whets appetite for Origin

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Aidan Guerra is the only new face for Mal Meninga. Photo: Getty

While State of Origin scheduling continues to be a hot-button issue – and several teams felt the pinch of representative absentees this weekend – the NRL’s abbreviated Round 11 produced four entertaining, tough encounters. But the club fixtures were a mere appetiser for the main event: Wednesday night’s series opener at Suncorp Stadium.

The hysteria surrounding NSW’s disjointed build-up to game one selection has subsided, while the naming of bold, fresh and in-form squad – and the Blues’ intensely focused preparation at new base Coffs Harbour – has belatedly raised expectations that 2014 will be the year Queensland’s reign ends.

Initially viewed as a gamble, the exuberance and influence being shown on the training paddock by new halves pairing Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds is shaping as one of the Blues’ trump cards.

In contrast, the Queensland unit is presenting a typically relaxed and low-key front – underpinned by confidence, or arrogance, depending on what side of the border you sit on – as the Maroons aim for nine straight.

The Blues approach the code’s showpiece event at their longest-ever odds for a series opener, but there is a growing mood that State of Origin’s 100th match could be a tightly-contested classic.

Maroons omissions send Mal reminder

Queensland opted to go with a tried and tested combination for the series opener, making just one change – calling up debutant Aidan Guerra for injured stalwart Sam Thaiday – from the squad that won the 2013 decider, despite the subpar form of incumbent forwards Josh Papalii, Ben Te’o and Chris McQueen. But a clutch of fringe contenders put their hands up over the weekend should changes be required later in the series.

Titans enigma David Taylor scored a barnstorming first half hat-trick in another 80-minute performance in a losing side, while ultra-consistent prop Jacob Lillyman racked up 150 metres from 18 carries for the victorious Warriors in the same game. Rugged Broncos bookend Josh McGuire also topped 100 metres, while making 37 tackles in 61 quality minutes.

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On fire: Sonny Bill Williams. Photo: Getty

Grudge match delivers

The Sydney Roosters kicked away late to easily win 32-12 on Friday night, belying a physical and fiery first half against Origin-depleted archrivals Canterbury. The contest threatened to boil over of several occasions, with Michael Ennis unsurprisingly in the thick of the action. The Bulldogs skipper was flung to the ground by his headgear by Sonny Bill Williams, before being felled by a Sam Moa high shot (sparking a vigorous melee just before the break) and firing verbal barbs at Frank-Paul Nu’uausala – who has surely assumed Sam Thaiday’s token ‘third man in’ mantle – as the players headed back up the tunnel. Meanwhile, ‘SBW’ thwarted his former club yet again, scoring two tries in arguably his most dominant performance of the year.

League of nations

The rapid change of the NRL’s multicultural landscape in recent years has never been better illustrated than in Friday’s Bulldogs-Roosters clash. Young Papua New Guinea winger Nene MacDonald debuted, while Roosters teammate Remi Casty became just the fourth French-born player in premiership history. Moses Mbye, a Queensland product with Gambian heritage, made his maiden NRL start for the Bulldogs, playing alongside England’s star front-rower James Graham. The match also featured Italy’s current Test captain, World Cup representatives of Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands, and 11 New Zealand internationals. A few token Aussies also took the field.

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A glimpse of Origin future? Ben Hunt. Photo: Getty

‘Baby Broncos’ prevail after classic halfback duel

Trent Hodkinson is only days away from his NSW debut and Daly Cherry-Evans has been anointed as Queensland’s long-term linchpin, but Saturday night provided a possible window into the future of Origin as Tigers halfback Luke Brooks and Broncos No.7 Ben Hunt punched and counterpunched throughout a gripping contest.

Brooks kicked three times in scoring a dazzling individual try, before grubbering for Bodene Thompson to put the Tigers in front for the first time. But Hunt laid on both of Corey Oates’ tries – one from the hand, one from the boot – and made a stunning break with five minutes to go that led to a contentious penalty, which he coolly slotted from out wide for a 16-14 victory.

A week to remember for …

Wests Tigers CEO Grant Mayer laid his cards on the table ahead of the Broncos clash, declaring Campbelltown Stadium’s future as a home venue for the joint venture was under threat after a dismal attendance when hosting the Cowboys a few weeks ago. But despite being on the wrong side of the result, Mayer and the club would have been ecstatic with the enthusiastic 16,511-strong turnout, cementing the suburban ground’s place on the Tigers’ calendar.

A week to forget for …

North Queensland felt the Origin drain more keenly than any other side, crashing to an emphatic 42-12 loss at the hands of the embattled Canberra Raiders, who were far from perfect but put away the weakened Cowboys with ease. It was also the Cowboys’ fifth loss in as many away games in 2014, while NSW Origin hopeful Tariq Sims is likely to miss some football after being put on report for an ugly spear tackle on opposing lock Shaun Fensom.

Play of the week

Making just his fourth first grade appearance, Warriors winger David Fusitua crossed for two tries in the 24-16 defeat of the Gold Coast, but also produced a gem of an offload earlier in the match for a trailing Shaun Johnson in the middle of the park. Johnson’s searing pace was too much for Titans fullback William Zillman – a renowned speedster himself – in a 60-metre dash to the try-line.

Blunder of the week

The hapless video referees continue to cover themselves in notoriety, pressing the wrong button to bring up the ‘No Try’ signal on the big screen after Roosters debutant Nene MacDonald scored during the first half. The bungle was rectified by the on-field official. Steve Chiddy and Luke Phillips, hang your heads.

Best individual performance

Besides the aforementioned brilliant long-range try, Shaun Johnson displayed wonderful control in the Warriors’ scrappy, tough win over the Titans, constantly creating with the ball and keeping the home side hemmed in with an excellent kicking display. But after carrying a groin injury into the match, Johnson limped off late with an ankle complaint – a major concern for the Warriors with Thomas Leuluai still sidelined.

Monday night

Last-placed Cronulla will be without key playmaker Todd Carney as well as NSW forward leaders Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis, leaving the Sharks looking more vulnerable than the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who are missing Queensland stars Greg Inglis, Chris McQueen and Ben Te’o. Souths halves Adam Reynolds and John Sutton should steer the visitors to a comfortable win, despite the uninviting prospect of Remondis Stadium on a cool Monday night.

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