Sport Rugby League Firm favourites, so why are NSW so nervous?
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Firm favourites, so why are NSW so nervous?

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Maroons’ ‘smoke and mirrors’ keep Blues on edge

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.

Pressure? What pressure? Mal Meninga arrives in Sydney on Sunday. Photo: Getty
Pressure? What pressure? Mal Meninga arrives in Sydney on Sunday. Photo: Getty

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. 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. The Maroons are playing their tricky set of circumstances perfectly and the Blues are getting noticeably edgy.

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.

A week to remember for

Vai Toutai, Pauli Pauli and Isaac De Gois after a Toutai try. Photo: Getty
Vai Toutai, Pauli Pauli and Isaac De Gois after a Toutai try. Photo: Getty

Parramatta was ordinary without Jarryd Hayne a couple of weeks back against Penrith, but the Eels proved they can compete without their megastar fullback on Sunday afternoon, subduing Canterbury 22-12. 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 in blue and gold.

A week to forget for

Wests Tigers were the most comprehensively outplayed side of the NRL’s truncated Round 14, barely firing a shot in a 32-10 loss to South Sydney. NSW stars Robbie Farah and Aaron Woods were sorely missed as the Tigers slipped down to eighth spot.

Play of the week

During an abbreviated premiership weekend bereft of out-and-out brilliance, cult hero Semi Radradra’s 90-metre intercept try and his opposing winger Corey Thompson’s miracle put-down in the Parramatta-Canterbury clash shone like beacons, while Pauli Pauli’s slick offload for Toutai’s second try in the same game wasn’t far behind.

Blunder of the week

Playing in the unfamiliar position of centre in the Knights’ depleted backline, James McManus failed in the fundamentals of wing play by putting down two bombs to serve up two tries for the Roosters. Newcastle’s 12-6 halftime lead swiftly turned into an 18-12 deficit on the back of the fumbles and the Roosters would not be headed.

Standout performer

Souths have an outstanding prospect on their hands in rookie backrower Kyle Turner. After filling in brilliantly at centre during the Rabbitohs’ injury crisis last weekend, Turner spent 80 minutes in the backline against the Tigers and scored a superb double. The Coonabarabran product’s emergence softens the blow of Ben Te’o’s almost certain departure.

Kyle Turner is an outstanding prospect for the Rabbitohs. Photo: Getty
Kyle Turner goes over for his second try. Photo: Getty

Monday night

Ailing sides Gold Coast and Melbourne are both desperate for a win, and are barely recognisable thanks to the ravages of injury and Origin representation. The Titans have a slight edge at home, but if their linchpin Albert Kelly pulls out the match is an even-money proposition.