Time for talk over as new State of Origin era dawns with unanswered questions
7 June, 2018, 7:00 am
SYDNEY – It’s a good thing Kevin Walters and Brad Fittler aren’t gambling men.
Because with both sides entering a new State of Origin era, never before has a series opener approached with so many unanswered questions.
From Queensland’s final side, queries over NSW’s defence, the Blues’ ability to absorb Origin pressure and whether the game will be refereed in the same penalty-prone way the NRL has been this year, so much remains unknown.
What’s certain is what’s at stake in Wednesday night’s clash at the MCG.
The youthful Blues will be desperate to win in Melbourne given the victors of the opening match go on to claim the series more than 70 per cent of the time.
It will be the first step as they try to shake 12 years of misery with their new-look side, and they won’t want to deal with the inevitable backlash – if they lose – of this year being regarded as another false dawn.
The youngest team to play Origin since 2004 and with a rookie halfback in Nathan Cleary, they shape as the side of the future after some 64 players have come and gone since the Maroons dynasty started in 2006.
Queensland are also entering a new era.
Rushed upon them by the retirement of Cameron Smith just last month, this is the first Maroons team not to feature he, Cooper Cronk or Johnathan Thurston since 2003.
That was also before Billy Slater withdrew with a hamstring complaint – and took about a quarter of their remaining Origin experience with him.
Then on Tuesday last year’s player-of-the-series Dane Gagai dislocated his finger and had the bone pop through the skin in their last training run.
Queensland coach Walters is still hopeful he can play, but the answer to that may not be known until an hour before kick-off with the NRL’s most exciting player in Kalyn Ponga on stand-by.
“I must admit in my short tenure as coach I haven’t experienced the week that I have with senior players not available, they have always been there,” Walters admits.
“But that’s what Origin is – it challenges everyone.”
It’s given the downtrodden state of NSW hope too. But the Blues – while fit and finalised – remain an even bigger mystery.
They could scorch Queensland with speed or crash into a smouldering heap.
When asked on Monday, not even Fittler could guarantee his record 11 rookies wouldn’t crack under pressure.
One thing he does know though is that even with all the the talk surrounding his zippy outside men, it’s not only there where the game will be won.
“I don’t know how many game have been won in Origin on speed out wide,” Fittler said.
“There is always so much more other stuff that goes into it. A lot of guys in the middle have a big say in what goes on.”
Them, and halfback Cleary.
The youngest Blues half in a decade and potentially the face of their future. He’s as unflappable as they come, ready to guide around a side who have barely played together before but one that has been picked on form and culture.
It’s part of the reason why the Blues are favourites, and why Queensland the longest-ever price they’ve ever been for a series opener.
“That just justifies why I don’t gamble,” Fittler said.
“I can’t try and make sense of it.”