What to Expect: New South Wales

They may be the defending champs, and they may be on their home turf, but after copping a hiding in Game Three last year and then losing Paul Gallen and Jarryd Hayne, their two best players, as well as senior figures Greg Bird and Brett Morris, the Blues go into tonight’s game as rank outsiders. Add in the lingering question marks over the form of their halves and it looks bleak for them, but if they play to their strengths and avoid errors they are still in with a huge chance.

The most obvious advantage held by the Blues going into the game is size. Aaron Woods, James Tamou, Andrew Fifita and David Klemmer are all massive human beings. The only Queensland prop that can compete with this quartet from a size standpoint is Matt Scott, so expect the Blues to adopt a similar game-plan to the one they used in Game Two last year, using a constant barrage of big men up the middle to tire out Queensland’s interior defenders. If they can limit handling errors, this should provide the Blues with a considerable advantage in the yardage game.

The selections of Ryan Hoffman and Beau Scott as starting back rowers suggest they aren’t going to attack down the fringes much in the first half, although Hoffman becomes a useful weapon in the attacking red zone as both a decoy runner and an under-rated try poacher. However, his role will be primarily a defensive one as the Blues would like to use Boyd Cordner down his favoured left edge to join Jennings, Tupou and Pearce for an all-Roosters attacking combination later in the game.

While that Roosters combination looks good on paper, it’s interesting to note that James Maloney is the left-side playmaker at club level, with Pearce typically more of a factor down the right. Pearce’s familiarity with his club-mates should be beneficial, but the combination may not be as fluid as Blues fans might hope. The utilisation of Tupou in attack will be a key factor, as his aerial ability was a bit of a non-factor last year with Reynolds and Hodkinson preferring to keep the ball at ground level. With the Maroons fielding a natural centre in Will Chambers opposite Tupou on the wing, expect Pearce to aim  a few high kicks his way.

Don’t expect much from the Blues in attack down the right. The selections of Beau Scott, Josh Morris and Will Hopoate are obviously designed to stifle the legendary Thurston/Inglis/Boyd combination defensively, and halfback Trent Hodkinson is more of an organiser than an attacking dynamo. This is where Josh Dugan will come into play. He’ll need to be heavily involved if the Blues are to post points, and his experience at right centre at the back end of last season should ensure he is comfortable as the primary attacking weapon on that side of the field.

Lock Josh Jackson and interchange forward Trent Merrin will be tasked with defending in the middle of the park and helping the props out in attack. Both are capable of generating second-phase play with their offloading, but with the Blues likely to take a safety-first approach this may not prove much of a factor. That leaves hooker and captain Robbie Farah, who will do what he does best, trailing his forwards all over the park and probing for gaps and opportunities, while tackling himself to a standstill in defence.

It may not be the most thrilling game plan ever conceived, but so long as it’s enough for them to come out on top Blues fans won’t care one bit.

Nick Fray, Origin Online