NSW VB Blues v QLD - Preview
The below preview and its contents are the thoughts of its author and not necessarily those of the New South Wales Rugby League
Queensland v New South Wales
If the Maroons complete the 2014 State of Origin Series with the same team with which they start, their squad will contain eight players to have played at least 20 Origin matches and qualify for the coveted Dick 'Tosser' Turner medal.
If the Blues achieve a similarly settled campaign they will have just one; fullback Jarryd Hayne.
It's as true as a Gene Miles one-handed offload that winning teams are easier to pick than those who continually have to be dragged up from the canvas but there is an undeniable sense of unity in the Maroons camp that feeds all the way down from the selection table.
Josh Papalii, Chris McQueen and Ben Te'o have not been in the same form for their clubs in 2014 that earned them Origin selection in the first place but a week spent in the company of their Queensland brethren will see their performances dramatically improve.
Blues coach Laurie Daley's hand was forced with suspensions and injuries affecting incumbents such as Greg Bird and Andrew Fifita but when Mitchell Pearce became embroiled in late-night hijinks that attracted the ire of the New South Wales Police less than three weeks out from Game One, Daley took a stand.
Not only was Pearce removed from selection discussions but Roosters teammate James Maloney went with him despite a starring role in a return from injury against the Wests Tigers in Round 9.
In their place have come the irresistible Josh Reynolds and his Bulldogs halves partner Trent Hodkinson while Roosters flyer Daniel Tupou is an exciting addition to a backline with plenty of potency.
It's in the forwards, however, where Daley went looking for a containment crew rather than the next generation of big Blues bookends.
There are six players in the NSW forward rotation 30 years of age or older, including the team's spiritual leaders in Paul Gallen and Robbie Farah. Beau Scott has earned a recall for the first time since Game Three, 2012 while Ryan Hoffman retains the position he held last year, seven years after making his Origin debut.
Although still highly accomplished first-graders it's hard to believe that Anthony Watmough's or Luke Lewis's best days are ahead of them so the question deserves to be asked as to whether they are the right men to relaunch a new Blues dynasty or simply the men for right now.
The Maroons have one debutant (Aidan Guerra) and the Blues two (Hodkinson and Tupou) but the Origin experience weighs heavily in Queensland's favour to the tune of 233 games to 124.
The question continues to be asked as to whether the Queensland players are nearing their used-by date but while ever they keep winning, age shall not weary them.
Watch Out Maroons: The increased speed of the game around the ruck area has been the major flow-on effect of rule changes introduced at the start of the year and there are few better at exploiting a chaotic middle third of the field than Blues hooker Robbie Farah. In extreme doubt with an elbow injury until a week ago, Farah returned to the Tigers in time to steer them to victory against the Sharks and was a must-have inclusion for the Blues to have any chance of upsetting Queensland on home soil. Despite missing three games Farah has 188 more dummy-half run metres than the next best (Queensland captain Cameron Smith) and his eight line break assists are the most of any regular hooker. If the Blues forwards can punch some holes, Farah is the one to take advantage.
Watch Out Blues: They are the quintessential odd couple but while the styles of Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston may vary, the numbers say they are both equally adept at creating opportunities for their teammates to both break the line or indeed score a try. If there was any doubt that the 2013 Golden Boot winner was indeed the world's best footballer, Thurston has given his critics no ammunition in 2014, topping the NRL through 10 rounds in try assists (14) and line break assists (13). His partner in crime has held off a concerted stake by Daly Cherry-Evans for title as the NRL's best No.7 with some impressive statistics of his own. In a Melbourne side that hasn't been at their usual high standard for the first two months, Cronk is ranked second in try assists (13) and fourth in line break assists with 10. If you were drafting a dream halves pairing from the NRL's most creative and influential footballers, Cronk and Thurston would be your men, and they're all Queensland's.
Plays To Watch: Origin matches are very rarely won by using carefully constructed plays perfectly executed to expose the opposition defence. Queensland took advantage of Nathan Merritt's inexperience and lack of combination with centre partner Josh Morris to expose the Rabbitohs' flyer defensively in Game Two last year and it's hard to imagine they won't look to put debutant Daniel Tupou under similar pressure. Tupou's advantage is that he will have Roosters teammate Michael Jennings on his inside and his extraordinary ability under the high ball may give the Maroons cause to consider any aerial assaults to his side. At the other end of the field, Tupou has a significant height advantage over his opposite Brent Tate and will be a prime target for either Reynolds or Hodkinson cross-field kicks. The other big play that will help decide the outcome is which player comes up with that desperate tackle in defence that inspires their teammates to do the same.
Where It Will Be Won: Over the past decade the opening game of the Series has been won by a margin of no more than eight points on all but one occasion so composure in the final 10 minutes will be critical. Queensland's 'spine' of Slater, Thurston, Cronk and Smith boast a combined Origin experience of 91 games compared to the Blues' 26 (17 of which belong to fullback Jarryd Hayne). Hodkinson and Reynolds have both won games at the death for the Bulldogs this season however transferring that cool-headedness to the game's most intense environment is a whole new challenge again. The coolest heads will prevail.
History: Played 99; Queensland 53, NSW 44, drawn 2. Since the State of Origin Series went to the best of three in 1982 there have been 32 Game Ones played and the spoils are split exactly down the middle with both sides winning 16 apiece. Despite Queensland skipper Cameron Smith suggesting the Maroons have been slow out of the blocks in recent years, the Maroons have won the opening game of the Series in five of the past seven years. The last time the Blues won Game One at Suncorp was in 2003 when Andrew Johns and Anthony Minichiello steered them to a 25-12 win, then wrapping up the Series in Game Two in Sydney.
Match Officials: Referee - Shayne Hayne; Assistant Referee - Ben Cummins; Touch Judges - Russell Turner & Nick Beashel; Video Referees - Steve Clark & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7pm.
How We See It: Amidst all the turmoil, injuries and suspensions, Blues coach Laurie Daley has selected a pack of forwards to get in the face of the Maroons in a bid to unsettle them and a backline riding a wave of confidence generated from outstanding club form. Paul Gallen, Beau Scott, Ryan Hoffman, Luke Lewis and Anthony Watmough will be on containment duty in the middle but will also need to give Reynolds and Hodkinson time and momentum to settle into the pace of an Origin fixture. Complacency shapes as the greatest threat to undermining Queensland's preparation but there was a commitment from the coach and captain from day one that that would not be the case. Enthusiasm will take New South Wales a long way but it's hard not to envision experience and class telling in the end. Maroons by six points.