This article was first written for and published for The Roar.
This Wednesday night’s State of Origin Game 3 is a dead rubber with the New South Wales Blues already sealing the series with a 22-12 win in Game 1 at the MCG and an 18-14 victory in Game 2 at ANZ Stadium.
The Blues have not won the series in a clean sweep for 18 years. Even when Queensland were at their most dominant, the Maroons also only managed the clean sweep once in 11 years.
The Maroons will want to win this game desperately – not only to restore some pride, but also to farewell Billy Slater appropriately. On Wednesday, Slater will play his 31st and final Origin game and he has been named captain with Greg Inglis out due to injury.
But for the Maroons to have any chance of toppling the Blues on Wednesday night, Kevin Walters needs to rethink some of his coaching strategies. In the first two games, he made some significant errors which proved very costly for Queensland.
In the past, what has made Queensland so successful is picking players in position and selecting a team, rather than a group of individuals. When Kevin Walters selected Kalyn Ponga for Game 2, he picked him out of position ‘just because he had to be there’.
Let me be clear. Ponga was outstanding in Game 2. He did the role he was asked to do and did it exceptionally well. He was unfazed by the Origin arena and I look forward to seeing him in Maroon for many years to come.
But unfortunately, when Walters brought Ponga on, he disrupted what had been working for Queensland so effectively in the first 25 minutes, which was playing through the forwards, giving Slater the ball and then Slater attacking the edges through Will Chambers, Dane Gagai and Valentine Holmes.
Any time Chambers got the ball in his hand, he managed to get outside Latrell Mitchell. In almost every circumstance it led to a try or a disallowed try.
A smart football team would have continued to target the weak edge that had been so exposed.
This strategy was working and New South Wales were struggling to keep up.
But instead of recognising that and encouraging that to continue, Walters brought Ponga on which saw the game plan change immediately.
Ponga played in the middle which forced Slater into first receiver. After that happened, the ball did not make it out wide for the rest of the game. Additionally, because Ben Hunt is a half that prefers to run rather than giving early ball, Walters’ error of judgement was compounded.
Unfortunately, Ponga will not be playing Game 3 due to injury, so fortunately Walters won’t be able to disrupt the game plan in that way again.
So hopefully he sticks to what worked in Game 2 and encourages Slater and new halfback Daly Cherry-Evans to give good early ball to the outside backs.
Bringing Ponga on and using him in that way was an example of Walters not playing what was in front of him and sticking to a pre-meditated strategy.
What helped the Blues so much, particularly in Game 2, was Brad Fittler playing and coaching what was in front of him.
Very early we saw Fittler make a decision to stop playing his props. Matt Prior saw very little football during the game. Instead, Jack de Belin and Tyson Frizell played three stints each. When Fittler saw Walters was playing Ponga in the middle he realised he did not need big players to contest that area of the park. This strategy worked for the Blues.
How Walters uses his forwards will also have a big impact on this game. Josh McGuire, Jai Arrow and Josh Papalii are all in the run-on side. That’s a good start and for Queensland’s sake, I hope they stay on the field together for plenty of the game.
In Game 2, McGuire also started and was one the Maroons’ most effective forwards. He was taken off in the 50th minute and did not return for the rest of the game.
For most of the second half, the Queensland middle was Coen Hess, Kalyn Ponga and Jai Arrow. It’s unclear why Walters opted for this middle instead of having McGuire, Arrow and Papalii on the field at the same time.
It was particularly baffling, because Ponga was Queensland’s most used middle forward. When it came to later in the game when Ponga could have had a real impact, he was absolutely exhausted. I wonder whether, had he had fresh legs, Ponga would have scored from that break he made late in the game rather than being chased down.
By the time it got to the 78th minute, Walters had only used five interchanges. He brought Papalii on with two minutes to go which was a waste. McGuire and Wallace remained on the bench despite the game being exceptionally fast-paced and Queensland needing fresh legs.
But what the Maroons need the most in this game is for their experienced players to step up in the absence of Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk and steady the ship. It was so clear that what was most missing for Queensland in Game 2 were some basic footy smarts and someone to tell the team to be patient rather than kicking on the third tackle directly to James Tedesco.
This is where Daly Cherry-Evans must also step up.
I’m still tipping a Blues clean sweep on Wednesday night and quite convincingly at that. The shackles will be off for New South Wales and I look forward to seeing them playing some fast, fun, exciting football and ruin the party for Billy Slater.