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What to Expect: Queensland

In recent years, predicting Queensland’s game-plan has been the simplest of tasks. Year after year, victory after victory, the same faces – why change a winning formula? The Maroons would go into each series with the  same strategy that propelled them to victory the previous year, and leave it up to the Blues to stop it.

The problem for Queensland this year, of course, is that last time around the Blues DID stop it. In the first two games of the series, New South Wales were able to drag the Maroons into an arm-wrestle that worked against Queensland’s strengths. Plenty of observers suggested that the injury to Cooper Cronk was to blame, but when you’re carrying a specialist halfback on your bench – an international in Daly Cherry-Evans – that excuse just doesn’t cut it.

Whether it was a case of Cherry-Evans going into his shell or Thurston over-calling him, Queensland’s biggest issue last year was their predictability in attack. Almost every time the Maroons found themselves in good attacking position, they ran the same old plays down the left with Thurston, Inglis and Boyd. It’s only natural that they’d want to exploit the most successful combination in Origin history, but it quickly became apparent that the Blues were ready for everything the Maroons threw at them on that side of the field, as Justin Hodges and Brent Tate – legends in their own right – were sadly under-utilised. This time around, expect the Maroons to do a better job of picking their spots, while they’d also like to see Billy Slater make his presence felt down this side to add an extra element to their attack.

Once Cronk returned in Game Three and the Maroons started using the right edge again, it restored that element of doubt the Blues had struggled to cope with in years past. With Cronk’s club-mate Will Chambers now paired with Hodges on the right, expect a lot more from Queensland down that side tonight, particularly with Sam Thaiday in such good form. His combination with Hodges is an often under-estimated part of Queensland’s attack, and Hodges is a master at drawing in defenders to create space for his wingers. With Chambers being a natural centre and giant Daniel Tupou marking him, the Maroons are unlikely to go the aerial route here.

While the Maroons backs should make them the more dangerous side in attack, they’ll need a huge effort from their under-sized forwards if they are to get the field position they need to make it work. They’ve gone with a small prop rotation of Scott, Myles, Lillyman and debutant josh McGuire, and the gambit here appears to be trading off some size to add mobility on the traditionally slippery surface at ANZ Stadium. The Maroons quartet lack nothing in energy and aggression, but the sheer bulk of their Blues counterparts will demand three defenders on each play, which could wear them down as the game goes on.

Even if the props are outmatched in the yardage game, Queensland’s back row should play a big part in narrowing the gap. Thaiday has plenty of experience in the front row himself, and along with Aidan Guerra they’ll play a bigger role in attack than Blues counterparts Hoffman and Scott, not just in the hit-up stats but also in attacking position. However, the real ace up Queensland’s sleeve could be lock Corey Parker, who might just be the game’s form forward at the moment. He’ll undoubtedly get through a ton of work, but his real strength will be his deadly offload game, which has the potential to create second phase play that will allow the likes of Thurston and Slater to run amok.

Then of course there’s skipper Cameron Smith, who has already cemented himself as the best hooker the game has ever seen. He’ll play his usual role of guiding the team around the park and getting the ball to where it needs to be, but the Blues also need to stay on their toes on every play, as he is a very capable playmaking option out of dummy-half when he senses an opportunity.

The Maroons squad is rounded out with a couple of wildcards on the bench in Matt Gillett and debutant Michael Morgan. Between them, they can cover just about every position on the park, however coach Mal Meninga will be hoping it doesn’t come to that and both can play their natural games. with Sam Thaiday likely to function as a de facto prop at times, Gillett should see his share of minutes in the back row where he is a devastating edge runner when utilised correctly. Provided there are no injuries, don’t expect to see Morgan until the final quarter of the game, where the Maroons will likely use him in a roaming role. The Cowboys have won plenty of close games in the dying stages during their current winning streak, and Morgan’s combination with Thurston has often been the deciding factor. If tonight’s game is a tight one, the Maroons will be hoping the pair can produce the same magic to help get them home.

On paper, this is a more accomplished and threatening team than the Blues, but they’ll need to overcome both a lack of size and the Blues’ home ground advantage if they are to get the job done tonight.

Nick Fray, Origin Online