The annual grudge match between New South Wales and Queensland – the elite in rugby league rivalries – is back for another three-match series.
The 40th edition of the State of Origin returns to its mid-season slot this year after the pandemic pushed the 2020 series to November.
Queensland surprised the pundits and won the last series 2-1, taking its formidable lead to 22 series wins to New South Wales’ 15, with two series levelled.
So will the Blues avenge last year’s defeat? Will NSW’s debutants rise to the occasion? Or will the Maroons’ injury-raddled bunch pull out another upset?
These are the five reasons the 2021 State of Origin series will be like no other.
1. Townsville’s turn
State of Origin has been played around Australia – in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane, but never before in Townsville.
The first game of 2021 was supposed to be in Melbourne, but the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak resulted in the match being moved from the MCG to North Queensland.
Now Queensland Country Bank Stadium, home of NRL club North Queensland Cowboys, will stage its first Origin game.
Townsville is a rugby league hotbed and it promises to be an intimidating, pro-Maroons atmosphere that NSW will have to contend with after the whistle blows.
It is the first time either state has hosted two games since 2017, and the first time since 1982 a state has hosted the opening two games.
The Queensland government pumped in big money to land the game, with game two at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium and then game three at Sydney’s Stadium Australia.
Some see Queensland’s back-to-back games on home turf as a big advantage.
2. Crackdown conundrum
Origin has historically been built on blood, guts and biff.
A contest where two teams throw everything physically at each other – often to the very limit of the rules (and then some).
Although the fighting has been long stripped from Origin, it has always been a series where the referees generally put away their whistles and let players get away with a bit more on the field than they do in club games.
But with the recent NRL-sanctioned crackdown on high tackles and shots to the head, concerns remain that this year’s series could end up dominated by sin-bins and a farcical 10 v 10 or nine v nine fixture, if players are regularly sent off for illegal play.
Common sense should prevail, but it will be fascinating to see how the referees approach and officiate this match.
2. Panther pride
The Blues have gone with a young team stacked with players from the dominant Penrith Panthers side.
The Panthers sit atop the NRL table and have lost just one game this year.
NSW coach Brad Fittler has built his Origin team around Penrith’s success.
Fittler has handed debuts to young stars Jarome Luai, Brian To’o and Liam Martin, as well as selecting their Panthers teammates Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo.
Fittler has pinned his hopes on the Mountain Men replicating their devastating club combinations and taking them into the Origin arena.
It has worked for the Blues in the past, and Fittler is hoping history repeats itself.
3. Underdog ‘Cane Toads’
The Maroons thrive on their underdog mentality and are once again using it to the max.
Queensland coach Paul Green has injury clouds over several members of his squad – including playmaker Cameron Munster, who is recovering from a foot injury.
Mercurial centre Dane Gagai is reportedly battling tonsillitis and utility back AJ Brimson still recovering from a knee injury.
The squad has already lost Kalyn Ponga and Reed Mahoney to injury. But the Maroons revel in building off an ‘injury crisis’, drawing motivation fuel from their role as the classic outsiders.
Queensland loves nothing more than to be written off by the media as having little chance to win, only to emerge victorious on game night.
5. Green might
One of Queensland’s unknowns this series is its new coach in rookie boss Green.
Green is hardly a stranger to State of Origin football – he played seven games for his state around the turn of the century.
He is also an experienced club coach. He’s been in charge of the Cowboys for seven years and led them to an NRL grand final win in 2015.
But as everyone knows, Origin is a special beast and the 48-year-old will have much less time to work with his troops than he previously had in the NRL.
Wily veteran Wayne Bennett showed his decades of experience in what he did with the Maroons last year.
Bennett coaching an unheralded Queensland side to a remarkable 2-1 series win.
It remains to be seen if Green can follow suit.
The first game of the 2021 State of Origin series starts on Wednesday, June 9, with kick off scheduled for 8.10pm at Queensland Country Bank Stadium