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Set of Six: Origin's almost here... so why are NSW acting so cocky?

Set of Six: Origin's almost here... so why are NSW acting so cocky?
Mitchell Pearce (Photo: Getty Images)

Get out your sky blue scarf / maroon pair of stubbies – it’s Origin time! Can NSW finally turn things around? Will Queensland fall apart without Billy at the back? And which NRL side will suffer the worst?

Why are NSW so cocky?

New South Wales seem hellbent on sloughing off the Origin underdog tag this year, even though their performances over the last decade should have seen them lose any pretension to the upper hand. This year’s edition, with two games played in the white-hot cauldron of Suncorp Stadium, should be no different. On paper, this seems to be a much stronger Blues outfit than recent vintages – but if games were played on paper Paul Gallen would be one of the most successful Origin captains rather than one of the biggest losers.

If you are a NSW fan there are reasons to be confident. Mitchell Pearce has been one of the form halves of the NRL season, but until he can replicate it in a sky blue jersey his name appearing on the team sheet should worry all Blues fans. The selection of Nathan Peats over the ageing Robbie Farah should be lauded – the Blues have too often relied on reputation rather than performance when selecting their side. But while this pick is certain to pay dividends in the long run, it’s hard to suggest that Peats will dominate Cameron Smith this season. On paper NSW appear to have a superior forward pack but that’s hardly a new development – there have been multiple times where NSW theoretically had better cattle up front but there is something about the Maroon jersey that inspires inferior players to levels plays that they seem otherwise unable to reach.

Given their meagre record over the last decade the Blues need all the help they can get and the inspiration from wearing the underdog tag isn’t something they should ditch so easily. The Maroons have once again cunningly positioned themselves as the underdog and it’s hard to believe the newly confident Blues aren’t marching into an ambush at Suncorp.

Will ditching Billy Slater cost Queensland?

One of the hallmarks of Queensland’s decade of dominance has been their loyalty to those players who have done a job in the Maroon jersey, continuing to pick veterans even when they were beset by injury or patchy club form. The Queensland selectors trusted that the enormity of the occasion and the strength of the Queensland team culture would overcome any temporary loss of form and that the chosen 17 would deliver when the moment arrived. Over the last ten years there have been very few instances of this policy failing Queensland so it is interesting now, when confronted with the injury enforced loss of stalwarts such as Greg Inglis, Matt Scott and potentially Johnathan Thurston, the Maroons selectors have opted to leave out Billy Slater in favour of Brisbane winger Corey Oates.

Slater is certainly nearing the end of his storied career but he is still capable of those sorts of game breaking plays that can turn a game on its head, something that can be a deciding factor in an Origin match. It is interesting that the cornerstone of Queensland success was loyalty until it wasn’t – especially when the likes of Jacob Lillyman, Aiden Guerra and Nate Myles have been given spots when others such as Coen Hess and Jarrod Wallace have been performing significantly better at club level. If Queensland lose the first game there will be many that point to the ditching of Slater as the karmic blow that led to their demise.

Is J.T going to pull a J.C?

Johnathan Thurston is as close to a rugby league messiah as we have right now, and his absence for game one will be a massive blow for the Cane Toads. But Queensland’s State of Origin success is built on their belief they are the perennial underdog and steeped on a host of mythic moments ranging from Billy Moore’s ‘Queenslander’ chant to Mark Coyne’s 79th minute miracle to Wally Lewis’ victorious last stand at Lang Park.

A hobbled J.T making a late return in the number 18 jersey to guide Queensland to victory in the second game of what is allegedly his last series would be just about one of the most Queensland things ever. In fact, it’s so perfect that it’s almost impossible to believe it won’t happen.

Which NRL club will be worst affected by the Origin period?

Traditionally the Broncos have been the club most heavily affected by the Origin period and this year’s edition looks to be no different with seven Broncos absent on Origin duty. The Cowboys will be holding their breath to see whether Thurston can make a comeback and if any attempt to rush him back for Origin will compromise his long-term effectiveness for his club – without him their season is dead in the water.

But interestingly the team that might be most impacted by the lingering effects of Origin is the Roosters. Mitchell Pearce has been one of the form players of the comp, but if he fails to translate his club performances to the Origin arena and starts to hear the familiar criticisms of his ability on the biggest stage then he might revert to the player who has struggled to make his presence felt consistently over the last few seasons.

Is that Benji’s theme music?

Benji Marshall shapes as an odd figure – a Premiership winner, a World Cup victor and author of one of the signature Grand Final moments, there is very little left for him to achieve in the game. It certainly seems unlikely that he will play a significant role for the Broncos this season, unless there is a rash of injuries in the halves. Marshall continues to go around in reserve grade when players with similar reputations would have hung it up long ago and found a cushy gig lobbing their opinions at unsuspecting Fox Sports viewers. This week’s showdown gives him an opportunity to step in for Milford against a listless Warriors side watching another season go down the gurgler – the perfect opportunity for Marshall to impress coach Wayne Bennett and make his case for playing a bigger part for the Broncos this season.

If Marshall can turn back the clock and flash some of his trademark magic then he’s sure to get a rise out of the Kiwi crowd who will be desperate for anything resembling excitement. It’s unclear at this stage if Marshall is anything more than a shadow of his former self but it’s possible that while he’s lost most of his former super human athleticism it could be compensated with the sort of guile and cunning that is only accumulated over the course of more than a decade in the NRL. Marshall obviously feels like he still has something in the tank and this round gives him the perfect opportunity to prove it to everyone else.

Match of the Round: Raiders vs Roosters

These pre-Origin rounds are like a post-apocalyptic Mad Max landscape, a few lonely misbegotten clashes dotting what should be have been a mid-season round chock full of compelling matches. With their full complements a showdown between the Raiders and the Roosters promised a proper thriller but even with stars like Mitchell Pearce and Boyd Cordner missing this match still promises plenty.

This game is full of players convinced they should be due a shot a Origin, particularly if NSW stumble badly in the first game and if you can bet on one thing this weekend it’s that Raiders coach Ricky Stuart has been reminding the likes of Blake Austin, Jarrod Croker, Joey Leilua and Shannon Boyd that they’ve been overlooked and disrespected (again). The Roosters have been one of the competitions early pace setters and after last year’s debacle will be desperate to avoid falling off the pace. Look for Luke Keary to have a big one as the Roosters pull out the late win.

PICKS (Last Week 7-1, Season Record 55-33): Rabbitohs over Eels / Broncos over Warriors / Sharks over Bulldogs / Roosters over Raiders

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Set of Six: Origin's almost here... so why are NSW acting so cocky?