State of Origin footy is almost upon us once again, accompanied by the speculation, or lack thereof, in regards to who will be picked.
With the squad selections being announced next week, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to put my twenty cents in. The Maroons’ dominance has stretched to eight straight years and, as a proud Queenslander, I’m hardly complaining. This means, however, that there is very little excitement or anticipation associated with the team announcement.
When picking my teams, I considered all the players currently displaying the best form in the NRL, and I couldn’t help noticing that the vast majority were New South Welshmen. I arrived at the conclusion that, as Queensland’s squad has been so stable and largely unchanged over the last few years, there is little pressure on their current crop of superstars to perform at an exceptionally high level for club (when it comes to representative selection).
Barring injury or retirement, the likes of Smith, Thurston, Boyd, Cronk, Slater etc. are automatic selections. Because they are seasoned origin campaigners, they know how to lift for the bigger stages and are well suited to the Origin arena. In the case of the Blues, positions are wide open and are highly contested as the Roaches make attempt after attempt to knock Queensland off their pedestal of supremacy.
I will therefore begin with Queensland, because, frankly, they are much easier to pick.
We can all agree that Greg Inglis is Queensland’s form fullback at NRL level, however as long as Billy Slater is around he will be stuck in the centres for Origin. Despite Slater’s quiet start to the season, he reminded us in the Storm’s recent victory over Manly of his skill and ability to control a game from the back with 2 tries, 3 line breaks, 8 tackle breaks and 181 running metres.
Basing other automatic selections on Australia’s Anzac Test team, Darius Boyd claims one wing spot, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk the halves, Cameron Smith the hooker, Matt Scott and Nate Myles the starting front-rowers, Matt Gillett in the second row and Corey Parker locking the scrum. Though currently heralded by many as the best player in the NRL, Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans must be the bench utility as Cronk has given no reason why he doesn’t deserve to be the starting halfback. It is also important to remember that Cronk himself starting his Origin career on the bench, easing into the atmosphere and nature of the game and slowly being groomed to replace the great Darren Lockyer. Cherry-Evans must follow a similar path (Thurston and Cronk have both hit the big 3-0, so he may not have to wait too long).
Veterans Justin Hodges and Brent Tate would fill out the back line, with Sam Thaiday the other starting back rower depending on his match fitness. Then comes probably the most contested position in the Maroons team; the bench forwards. My picks are Josh McGuire, Dave Taylor and Jacob Lillyman. McGuire has come into his own as the Broncos forward pack leader and Taylor’s recent form has done enough to suggest he is worthy of an Origin recall. While Lillyman’s form hasn’t been outstanding for the Warriors, his statistics suggest he is more deserving of an Origin jumper than last year’s bench of Chris McQueen, Josh Papalii and Ben Te’o. All have been in and out of their teams’ starting sides and low on performance. The trio’s average statistics (compared to McGuire, Taylor and Lillyman’s) are 8.3 runs (14), 94 run metres (130) and 170.6 tackles (211.3). Their stats are superior in terms of offloads (0.5 to 0.4) and tackle busts (1.6 to 1.03), however this slim and is mostly because Papalii boosts with average with 2.5 offloads.
So my Queensland team should look like this:
9. Smith (c)
Honourable mentions go to Canberra fullback Anthony, and Broncos Andrew McCullough and Daniel Vidot. Dane Gagai has been playing well, however Mal Meninga will never pick him after his shenanigans at the emerging Origin camp. Milford and Vidot will be useful to cover the backline. Milford can be blooded on the bench should Thurston or Cronk go down and Cherry-Evans can slot into the halves, and Vidot be called onto the wing in almost any crisis as Inglis can move to fullback and Tate can cover the centres. If Thaiday doesn’t return from injury before Origin I, I’d almost consider Papalii the next best option to replace him in the side with Taylor moving to the starting pack.
And now for my picks for the dreaded Blues side, and considering the mess their campaign is in before Game I has even kicked off, this will take a little longer than my Queensland selections.
First and foremost, I want to discuss Josh Dugan and the concept of differing between a player’s on-field ability from their off-field personality. Consider it separating their self from their product. As a product, Josh Dugan is an exceptional footballer. He is unpredictable, a match-winner, one of the game’s real X-factor players. But let’s take a look at his person. While contracted to the Canberra Raiders in 2013, he and then-teammate Blake Ferguson where stood down after posting a photo to Instagram of them drinking Pineapple cruisers on a roof. Dugan was recovering from a rib injury at the time, for which he was prohibited from drinking alcohol. If that wasn’t bad enough, he missed several training sessions and team meetings, resulting in Canberra terminating his contract. I for one was appalled that he was sacked from the Raiders for his off-field antics and was later selected to play State of Origin in the same year. Rugby League needs to ask itself; what kind of message does that send to the kids who play the game?
Dugan, now playing for St George Illawarra, is undeniably an exceptional talent, but it is a disgrace that he is even being considered for the Blues’ fullback spot. Rant over.
In any case, if the Blues really want to finally beat Queensland this year, Jarryd Hayne should be the man in the number one jersey. Since debuting in Game I of 2007, Hayne has arguably been New South Wales’ most consistent player, having even won Man of the Match awards as well as the Brad Fittler Medal (best Blues player in a series) from the wing. He was fullback in Game I last year, coincidentally the only game the Blues won in the series, in which he has a blinder. He is a true Origin player; while he may not be brilliant week in, week out for Parramatta, he knows what it is to play in Rugby League’s greatest arena.
New South Wales’ Test players – Brett (wing) and Josh Morris (centre), James Tamou (prop), Greg Bird (second row/lock), Boyd Cordner (second row) and Paul Gallen (prop/lock) – should be automatic selections, however, with the NRL cracking down on lifting tackles,
Bird will not feature in Game I. Michael Jennings is my choice for the other centre position, while Josh Reynolds is the most deserving to play five-eighth as his form is terrific. He played from the bench in last year’s series, so he has some understanding the nature of Origin and won’t be completely thrown in the deep end.
Despite my belief that New South Wales needs stability more than anything, incumbent halfback Mitchell Pearce should scrapped, especially considering his brush with the law last Saturday night. He has been given enough chances to prove himself at Origin level and hasn’t delivered, so it’s time to move on. The Blues’ stability will come with quality Origin players and unfortunately Pearce doesn’t fit the bill.
The candidates for the number seven are Adam Reynolds, Trent Hodkinson and Jarrod Mullen. While it is the general that Luke Brooks has the makings of a great Blues halfback, at only 19 it is too early to blood him just yet. The fact that Reynolds and Hodkinson are more than competent goal kickers (Reynolds’ percentage is the best in premiership history) really helps their chances, though Hodkinson’s form and club combination with Josh Reynolds at the Bulldogs (currently on top of the NRL ladder) gives him the edge over the South’s half. Mullen has a strong case for the position. He has easily been the best player in a struggling Knights team this season and did play halfback for the Blues in the first game of 2007. However, he has been playing mostly at five-eighth for the past few seasons, and though I would back him to make the switch for Origin, Hodkinson would be my first choice.
The names of Pat Richards, Jorge Taufua and Daniel Tupou have all been thrown around for becoming New South Wales’ latest debutant on the flank. In my opinion, the Blues really couldn’t go wrong here. All three wingers have their own ‘trump card’ – Richards’ boot, Tupou’s aerial ability and Taufua’s ability to tear defenses apart. Their stats this season so far are also pretty even. However, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to make a decision, I would choose Richards. He is one of the most reliable players in the game, he was one of the best ever to play in the English Super League, plus his radar-like boot and tactical restarts would be invaluable to New South Wales.
Tigers pair Aaron Woods and Robbie Farah should fill in the other front row spots (Prop and Hooker) with Melbourne veteran Ryan Hoffman replacing Greg Bird as the starting second rower. The bench should consist of incumbents Andrew Fifita and Anthony Watmough alongside debutants Cronulla’s Wade Graham and Canterbury’s Josh Jackson. Graham’s versatility and ability to cover the halves and the back row should see him get the nod for bench utility ahead of Kurt Gidley (as Robbie Farah is an 80 minute player having a hooker on the bench is unnecessary), while Jackson is one of the NRL’s most exciting young forwards who has well-demonstrated his credentials for Origin football.
So here is my Blues team:
Should Fifita’s injury keep him out of Game I, Trent Merrin should be called up to replace him on the bench. Depending on the team’s performance, injuries as well as their own form, other forwards Tony Williams, Beau Scott and Tariq Sims could earn a call-up. The likes of Nathan Peats (hooker), Brett Stewart (fullback) and Jamal Idris (centre) should be next in line as back up players.
So there you have it. My picks for the 2014 State of Origin squads.