This article was first written for and published for The Roar.
It’s been a tough last decade for New South Wales Blues fans in the men’s State of Origin arena.
The Queensland Maroons, led by Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk, have won 11 out of the last 12 series, establishing a dynasty that footy fans may never see the likes of again.
But, with his selection of 11 Blues debutants last Monday night including Jack de Belin, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Damien Cook and Josh Addo-Carr, Brad Fittler has almost single-handedly reinvigorated the State of Origin concept, which was getting a bit stale.
When the Blues run out onto the MCG on Wednesday night, it will be as favourites and to be honest, it will probably be the first time in the last decade that the squad on the field has rightfully earnt that title.
I’ve tipped the Blues to beat the Maroons on Wednesday night by eight points. Here’s how they are going to do it.
The side that Fittler has selected is different from previous Origin squads because it is a side picked genuinely form. Almost every single player in that squad deserves their place and plenty of players who have been stalwarts for the Blues in recent seasons like Josh Jackson, Wade Graham and Aaron Woods have not been selected based on their form this year.
In the past, we’ve seen a strategy employed by other coaches, where players have been picked because they are ‘typical’ Origin players. What I mean by that is the selection of players that play with grit, are tough and have the ability to grind out a win. In the past, we potentially would have seen Cameron McInnes picked ahead of Cook because of he’s a tough player – didn’t he once play without a tooth?
This is not your typical State of Origin team.
This team has been selected to play fast and exciting football. Fittler has selected a team that he thinks is capable of scoring more than 20 points and based on the squad’s club form, I’m backing them in to do so.
Look at the backs. I would argue that there has never been a faster backline in State of Origin history than James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts and Addo-Carr. Between them, they’ve scored 30 NRL tries this season (led by Addo-Carr on 12).
What is particularly tantalising is that one of the strengths of Nathan Cleary and James Maloney at the Penrith Panthers this year has been getting good early ball to their outside backs.
If Freddie employs this strategy on Wednesday night and we see Cleary passing the ball to Maloney and then Maloney hitting the chest of Roberts or Mitchell, I imagine these men will be very hard to stop.
I’ve mentioned the pace of the Blues backline, but this is a team with speed to burn all over the field. It could, in fact, be the fastest Origin squad in history, particularly with the likes of Paul Vaughan, Tyson Frizell and Cook selected as well. This team will be quick through the middle and in the halves.
I’m particularly looking forward to watching Cook who I think will have a field day, particularly off the back of quick plays of the ball from de Belin and Angus Crichton. Even without a quick play of the ball, I back Cook to be able to get past almost everyone, particularly as the game progresses.
Speaking of the halves, this is the first time in a decade that the Blues playmakers have been in better form than their Queensland counterparts. After this State of Origin series, we will know whether Ben Hunt is interested in being a representative player. Much of the Maroons chances will rest on whether Hunt decides to run the football on Wednesday night.
For the Blues, I’ve seen plenty of talk that this is the Origin pairing to lead the Blues into the next decade. That talk has made me laugh, because I look forward to seeing Maloney lining up for the Blues in a decade when he is 42 years old.
But I get their point, particularly in relation to Cleary who I hope is helped, looked after and mentored so that he has a genuine opportunity to be the future for the Blues.
I mentioned earlier that I thought almost every single player in the Blues squad deserved to be picked. But Euan Aitken, who is the in-form centre in the competition at the moment, was hard done by. Mitchell may have plenty of flair, but he does have a tendency to go missing at crucial points, particularly when his team is trying to get out of their own defensive zone.
That is when the Blues will need Mitchell the most and I hope that he really steps up, because at this stage he has fewer yardage runs than almost every back who has played more than five NRL games in the last 18 months.
Despite all this, you would be a fool to completely write off the Maroons. The Maroons love being the underdog and even with all the talk of the ‘demise’ of their squad, it still looks pretty good to me, particularly their bench with Coen Hess, Josh Papalii, Jai Arrow and Michael Morgan.
I may be tipping the Blues, but a win won’t come easy.
If I’m wrong (which judging on my tipping form from this year could very well be the case!), the important thing for Blues fans to remember is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This team must be given the opportunity to grow together and to be afforded the same chances to succeed as the team selected over the last ten years.
I’m looking forward to Game 1 on Wednesday night, perhaps I’ll actually be able to wear my Blues scarf out of the MCG with some semblance of pride.