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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Nick Tedeschi

Blues’ State of Origin reputations on line as weight of expectation falls on Maroons

Apisai Koroisau (third right) leads NSW through a drill at training in Perth earlier this week.
Apisai Koroisau (third right) leads NSW through a drill at training in Perth earlier this week. Photograph: James Worsfold/AAP

Brad Fittler is all-in. He is not going to die wondering. It has been relatively uncommon over the last decade for coaches to make mass changes at State of Origin level, but the New South Wales coach saw little choice after a terribly disappointing opener that saw the Blues lose on home turf. In doing so, Fittler has not only admitted he got it wrong in Game 1 but has put his reputation well and truly on the line.

Fittler was widely criticised for the team he sent out in Sydney. While many factors contributed to the Blues’ defeat, including an unexpectedly messy ruck, there is little doubt that some of the controversial selection calls hurt NSW.

Tariq Sims, Kotoni Staggs, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Ryan Matterson have been dropped from the Blues while NSW’s best from the first game Jack Wighton will miss out due to Covid. Recalled are Angus Crichton and Jake Trbojevic. Api Koroisau starts at hooker with Damien Cook relegated to the bench as the Blues look to replicate the two-hooker strategy that served the Maroons so well in Sydney. Matt Burton will debut at centre while Siosifa Talakai starts from the bench.

Josh Addo-Carr remains on the outer despite some sublime club form with Daniel Tupou retaining his spot on the wing.

While there is rightly a debate around which team is better, there is little doubt that the team selected for Perth by NSW is better suited. This is a far better balanced team and one that will suit the key playmakers.

The decision to start Koroisau at No 9 certainly will benefit Panthers playmakers Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Isaah Yeo. Koroisau is significantly different in style to Cook, taking a far simpler approach by getting early ball to his playmakers. That stands in contrast to Cook, who likes to poke and prod a defensive line and examine all options before distributing.

The other notable benefit of the team for Game 2 is not having a specialist centre on the bench. It was a curious decision to start Stephen Crichton from the pine in the opener and did not serve the Blues well when they could have used some extra leg speed through the middle. Talakai provides coverage at centre while he made his bones in the pack.

Queensland no longer get the benefit of an expectation-free lead-up as they had in the opener. They will no longer be able to catch the Blues by surprise either.

Queensland assistant coach Johnathan Thurston keeps a close eye on proceedings at training this week.
Queensland assistant coach Johnathan Thurston keeps a close eye on proceedings at training this week. Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Billy Slater kept a very tight lid on things leading into Sydney. When the Maroons hit the paddock they exploded. They played a tactically sound game but did so without any real weight of expectation. That is now gone after a frightfully strong win.

Slater has made just two changes heading into Perth and both of them have been forced. Xavier Coates has been replaced on the wing by Murray Taulagi while Jai Arrow returns to the 17 following an injury to Reuben Cotter picked up in the warm-up of the Cowboys-Sea Eagles clash.

The loss of Cotter should not be underestimated. While he has just one Origin under his belt, it was a debut for the ages. The energy he brought to the Maroons – along with bench player Patrick Carrigan – really set the tone for Queensland, an energy they maintained for much of the match. Arrow is an outstanding workhorse but his game does not have the same energy as Cotter’s.

All the talk following the opener surrounded the ruck. New South Wales, somewhat naively, believed there would be a clean ruck similar to most NRL games. Queensland took the risk that referee Ashley Klein would be loth to blow too many penalties and ensured New South Wales could get no momentum. It would seem highly unlikely that we will see such disparity again in approaches with NSW more likely to take a far more cynical view.

Klein was reappointed for the second game of the series despite a push from the Blues for change. They were unhappy with a number of decisions. Klein’s appointment is likely to work in NSW’s favour though. There will be no surprises in how the game is officiated and given the noise that has come from the NSW side, it would be of no surprise if the rub of the green went the Blues’ way.

While the pressure is certainly on NSW to keep the series alive, history suggests this is a very good spot for them. Brad Fittler has not lost a Game 2 during his tenure as coach, suggesting he has been able to make the necessary adjustments when required. And teams who lost the opener have won the last six when Game 2 is held at their home ground or on neutral turf.

Fittler has taken a big gamble heading into Perth. Whether it pays off or not will decide not only the 2022 series but Fittler’s reputation as a coach.

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