As Origins go it was blue bloody murder.
New South Wales took the sword to Queensland in 2021’s series opener in an eight-try romp of pure skill, power and pace. It was something little seen in recent Origin history, a one-sided contest dominated completely and utterly by the men in blue.
All the talk leading into the match was about Brad Fittler’s bunch of Penrith rookies, whether they would handle the pressure of their Origin debuts, and about the big advantage of the Maroons’ having back-to-back matches held in Queensland. Both narratives failed to materialise.
The Penrith stars dazzled, winger Brian To’o grabbing two tries on debut, and NSW seemed to thrive on the atmosphere in Townsville.
Tom Trbojevic, absolutely blitzing all opposition in the NRL for Manly this season, took that devastating form into Origin for NSW. He finished with a hat-trick in the centres, while fellow three-quarter Latrell Mitchell, also a fullback in clubland, grabbed a brace of his own.
The pair proved unstoppable. With a bloodied Nathan Clearly kicking a perfect eight from eight from the boot, and Fitller’s men easily winning the yardage battle in the middle, everything went NSW’s way in Game I and it was nothing but disaster for Queensland.
After the match Maroons coach Paul Green, who was in charge of his first-ever Origin game, admitted he got his team’s preparation wrong. Queensland clearly carried too many players with injuries into the contest and were badly exposed.
So for Game II Green has swung the axe – and then some.
Heads have rolled
Gone are Xavier Coates, Jaydn Su’A and Joe Ofahengaue, punted from the squad. Injury has claimed hookers Harry Grant and Reed Mahoney, so veteran Andrew McCullough has been recalled.
Forward David Fifita has been dropped to the bench, while Josh Papalii makes his return from suspension in the front row. Fellow prop Francis Molo will also make his Origin debut from the interchange.
But the biggest shock came in the former of Reece Walsh.
The rookie fullback has played just seven NRL games, yes a grand total of seven, and is just 18 years old. But with Kalyn Ponga and AJ Brimson unavailable, Green has turned to the teenager from the Gold Coast.
Walsh will become Queensland’s youngest player since 1995 back when Ben Ikin made his Origin entry at the age of just 18 years and 352 days.
Ikin turned out well, going on to play 16 more Origin matches and that year helping the Maroons’ rag-tag bunch of misfits to a stunning 3-0 series upset in the middle of the Super League war. Green will be hoping for a similar omen.
You cannot deny Walsh’s talent, and he has been so good for the Warriors that superstar Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been moved out on to the wing to make away for the 18-year-old.
However, it remains a fair risk to throw a player so young into the toughest cauldron that exists in rugby league. Former NSW and NRL coach Phil Gould has branded the selection of Walsh a “disgracefully weak decision” by the canetoads.
Drastic times call for drastic measures, and some might say Queensland are feeling the heat.
The Blues have few injury concerns, with only forward Jake Trbojevic sidelined. NSW have brought back Angus Crichton and Dale Finnucane into the fold, both experienced campaigners at Origin level who have won premierships with their clubs, the Roosters and Storm.
Looking at the two squads on paper, there is an air of predictability about this game. The Blues are settled, confident and have talent to burn. They appear unbeatable.
Queensland are down and out. Hurt by injury, low on confidence, with little depth and embarrassed by the huge Game I scoreline. Game II should be straightforward.
But State of Origin rarely follows script. Part of its appeal is its unpredictable storylines, its history of upsets, of rollercoaster moments and matches that can turn on a single decision or error.
NSW know this, and boast a poor record at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium to boot. They will be wary of the wounded, cornered Queensland animal.
The Maroons love being an underdog, thrive on being underestimated. The stage is set for another Origin classic.
- The second game of the 2021 State of Origin series takes place on Sunday, June 27 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, with kick off scheduled for 8:10pm (AEST)