Daley gambles on halves measure
As had been widely tipped, NSW coach Laurie Daley paired the halfbacks from his previous campaigns – the oft-maligned Mitchell Pearce and unlikely 2014 hero Trent Hodkinson – together to guide the Blues’ title defence.
Pearce will wear the No.6 jumper for the first time in his senior career, while the woefully out-of-form Hodkinson has been given a reprieve.
The Blues’ chances of victory in the series opener next Wednesday night hinge on Hodkinson’s ability to lift himself out of a dreadful slump and manage the game, and Pearce putting an abysmal Origin record behind him and finally transferring his club form to the representative arena – something Daley clearly believes the five-eighth role will achieve.
It may turn out to be a masterstroke, but on paper – and 2015 performances – it seems destined to backfire.
Without the influence of Jarryd Hayne, and assuming Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk will emerge through the 80 minutes unscathed, the Blues’ halves won’t be afforded the same luxuries as Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds were last year.
James Maloney was exceedingly unlucky and will be waiting by the phone should Hodkinson fail to steer NSW to victory next Wednesday.
Gaudy Maroons’ presentation misses the mark
Defending champs NSW kept the team announcement low-key and tasteful, but casual observers of Queensland’s bizarre event could be forgiven for thinking the northerners’ record winning streak was still alive.
As if a 14-year-old and their grandfather had collaborated on the Brisbane-hosted team launch, the Maroons players entered the room one by one accompanied by the worst pop songs of recent years, making their way down an aisle lined by uniformed soldiers.
Sam Thaiday’s cringe-worthy attempts to ham it up with the soldiers on his way to the stage, while cheesy techno blasted out of the sound system, summed up the Queensland promotional department’s sorry mish-mash of themes.
Lewis feels the axe as size wins out
Blues veteran Luke Lewis’ unrivalled versatility was not enough to retain his customary bench utility spot, with Daley opting to go with a big interchange quartet: automatic inclusions Boyd Cordner and Trent Merrin, along with debutant David Klemmer and the recalled Andrew Fifita.
Josh Jackson is an inspired choice at lock, while only a spate of concussions was going to keep reigning Brad Fittler Medal winner Ryan Hoffman from becoming the Warriors’ first-ever NSW representative.
Beau Scott and James Tamou were perhaps a tad fortunate to be retained in the starting pack; St George Illawarra pair Tyson Frizell and Joel Thompson were unlucky to miss the boat and are odds-on to come into the picture at some point during the series.
Nevertheless, it’s a strong pack given that Paul Gallen and Greg Bird were unavailable, and one that looks at least the equal of the revered Queensland engine-room.
But the lack of mobility and pace, as well as versatility, shapes as a concern – with Queensland’s 2002 series-opening squad (which went down 36-4) a pertinent case study.
Mal sweats on Cherry-Evans’ fitness
An untimely shoulder injury to interchange utility Daly Cherry-Evans was the only concern for Queensland coach Mal Meninga ahead of Origin I. The Manly gun was named but is in big doubt, while the Maroons are yet to name a shadow player.
Michael Morgan would be the front-runner to replace DCE, with Ben Hunt also a chance after fulfilling the role at Test level last year. Dylan Napa, named 18th man, could also be promoted with debutant Josh McGuire and Matt Gillett already providing some versatility off the bench. The decision to retain veteran Jacob Lillyman won’t please those frothing over Napa’s dynamic qualities, but it was a smart call from Meninga and co.
Cherry-Evans’ absence would cause minimal disruption to a 17-man unit that appears far more logical and settled than the side NSW named, and Queensland will deservedly go into the series opener adorned with the favourites tag.
On a wing a prayer
Just one specialist winger – NSW’s Daniel Tupou – was named in either side, but only one of the manufactured flank-men stands out as a dud selection.
Darius Boyd, the equal-top try-scorer in Origin history, is a vastly experienced rep winger, while Will Chambers is in great form and enjoyed a fine debut for Queensland in last year’s dead-rubber … not to mention the dearth of wing talent north of the border.
The Blues’ right winger, Will Hopoate, is one incumbent who should have missed out, however. He has struggled for impact at fullback or centre for Parramatta in 2015, and a debut for recent Test debutant Alex Johnston or Gold Coast sensation James Roberts would have had the underdone Boyd and the Maroons far more wary.
Fringe contenders play the waiting game
It’s difficult to see the loser of next Wednesday’s showdown not making a stack of changes for Origin II at the MCG after incumbency played a greater role than form in the selection of both sides. There’s still plenty to play for at club level besides premiership points for a welter of fringe Blues and Maroons.
Johnston, Roberts, Frizell, Thompson, Dylan Walker, Aiden Tolman and Matt Moylan will still be very much on Daley’s radar, while the likes of Morgan, Gavin Cooper, Dave Tyrell and the dumped Chris McQueen should be on Meninga’s speed-dial if Queensland loses its third straight series opener.