Origin 2016: Are The Blues On The Precipice Of Starting A Dynasty Of Their Own?

Youthful exuberance will wear blue on Wednesday night, as Laurie Daley’s new look lineup seeks to turn the tide on a decade of Maroon dominance.

A number of pejorative overtones have been associated with the NSW side since its announcement last week, with critics quick to write off their chances against a seasoned Maroons side.

Amongst the perpetual angst that invariably aligns itself with the beginning of a new origin series, is concern over the inexperience of the Blues side.

No doubt Laurie had one eye firmly fixed on the future when he sat down to select his best seventeen. The changing of the guard as far as NSW are concerned is very much upon us.

The baby blue’s new look spine will feature two Origin debutants in Moylan and Reynolds, alongside veteran hooker Robbie Farah and recalled James Maloney.

If NSW are to challenge, or indeed win this origin series, heavy scrutiny must be placed on the kicking game of the halves.

In the past, field position has been forfeited by NSW through poor fifth tackle kick options. The Origin decider last year, which saw the Blues go down 52-6, was played almost exclusively in Queensland’s half.

Maloney and Reynolds must avoid recreating the mistakes made by Pearce and Hodkinson in last years trouncing, by producing penetrating last tackle kicks that force Queensland to start their sets inside their own red zone. This will eliminate the opportunity for Cronk or Thurston to produce an attacking kick and reduce the influence of Oates and Inglis in attacking field position on the left edge.

Given NSW’ fallible right edge defence, which was exposed during game three last year, it’s imperative that NSW limit Queensland’s time in possession in attacking territory.

NSW’s right edge defence would have looked quite fragile had Dugan lined up alongside his old mate Ferguson, and not been ruled out with an elbow injury at the weekend.

Morris’ inclusion adds stability to the defensive unit on the right wing, which would have appeared quite inexperienced without him.

Both Reynolds and Maloney have shown a propensity to take the line on in club football this year. This trend must continue if they are to tire out the Queensland defensive line and improve NSW’ go forward. The way they combine with the likes of Woods and Gallen off the back of quick play-the-balls will dictate the meters NSW gain from a set of six.

It’s no secret Origin contests are won through field position and possession, the refurbished halves combination holds the key to unlocking both of these for NSW.

If they can exploit the chinks in the impervious Queensland defensive armory, it will go a long way towards winning them the series.

Dylan Walkers selection as a bench utility tends to boggle the mind, his form at five-eight this year for Manly hardly warrants a rep cap. He is the only blemish on what can be described as a typically adaptable, sizable, defensive minded bench. Jackson Bird and Bryce Cartwright should consider themselves unlucky to have missed out on playing in the utility role.

Negatives aside, Walker has multiple strings to his bow that will serve him well in a blue jumper. His speed may well open the game up if he is injected into the contest during the last twenty minutes. Queensland’s forward pack will be beginning to tire by this stage, leaving open pasture down the middle of the ground for him to take advantage of.

Although he can play in a number of different positions, replacing Farah at hooker appears to be the most logical application of his speed. He will reinvigorate NSW’s go forward in the closing stages through quick darts out of dummy-half from around a tiring ruck.

His biggest challenge will be rivaling the class of his opposite number in Michael Morgan, who has proved difficult to contain late in Origin contests (pending Cronk’s injury).

Robbie Farah is another questionable selection as far as form is concerned. Having missed a total of six games this season for his club side, there are questions over whether or not he’s the right man for the job.

I can’t help but think that Farah is an exponent of the ‘loyalty program’ that Laurie Daley appears to have in place across certain positions within the blues side. Past performance doesn’t necessarily indicate future prosperity; the job should be entrusted to the player who has shown the best form in the lead up to Origin.

Michael Ennis’ form for the Sharks has far exceeded Robbie Farah’s contributions to the Tigers. The hallmark of his game in 2016 is his ability to link up with the big men close to the line. This coupled with his impeccable goal-line defence, and short kicking game is why he’s ranked even third on the Dally M leaderboard, and why in an alternate universe he’d have the number nine on his back come Wednesday night.

An inherent attribute of a NSW side is a strong pack. Some would even argue they are the lynchpins of the NSW side. The experience of Gallen and Woods in the front row will be asked to make plenty of runs throughout the game on Wednesday night, and lead the direction of the NSW attack.

The performance of the pack should also be judged on their ability to negate second phase football that Queensland will use as a tactic to disorganize the NSW defence and generate attacking opportunities.

Miscommunication between defenders has in the past allowed the likes of Corey Parker and Matt Scott to get an arm free and offload the football, causing the defence to slide in-field to compensate for missing defenders. This leaves an overlap on the edges for Inglis, Oates, O’Neill and Gagai to exploit.

For the young debutants in the side, half the battle will be getting over the nerves of a monumental occasion in their Rugby League careers.

NSW can claim the Maroons players are on borrowed time in the rep arena, but unless they show this through their performances, Queensland will continue to dominate them come the beginning of winter each year.

Nathan Peats – A New Beginning

Four weeks ago, Nathan Peats was touted as a smoky to replace Robbie Farah in the Blues number nine jumper. A month later, he’s the fall guy for the mismanagement of an inept board.

Despite the turbulence and injustices of the last few weeks, Peats churned out a stellar performance for his new club, helping them to a four-point win over competition heavyweights Penrith at the foot of the mountains on Sunday.

 After spending a brief period in the back row, the benching of Nathan Friend shortly before half time allowed Peats to return to his traditional role at dummy-half.

In his fifty-eight minutes on the ground, Peats made fourty-two tackles in a typically prolific defensive display. However, it was his attacking prowess that took center stage.

In the sixty-fourth minute, he burrowed his way underneath two Penrith defenders off the back of a Greg Bird play-the-ball to score a crucial try and regain score-line parity for the Titans.

His short runs out of dummy half during the second stanza caught the tired Penrith big men out of position, allowing the Gold Coast forwards to access open pasture off the back of quick play-the-balls. Bird and James both profited from Peats’ presence, running for 116 and 120 meters respectively.

His performance was bittersweet justice on two fronts.

Since their inception, the Gold Coast has struggled to lure star players to the club. Cherry-Evans’ backflip on a deal in July last year left a void in the halves, an issue that was further compounded by the subsequent injury to Kane Elgey, and departure of Aiden Sezer to the Canberra Raiders.

Ironically, through their absence, they’ve uncovered a future star halfback in Ashley Taylor.

If a positive is to be drawn from the unfortunate circumstances of the Peats move to the glitter strip, it’s that he will remain steadfast in a blue, gold and white jumper till at least the end of 2017, becoming one of the Gold Coast’s bigger marque signings since Scott Prince.

For the Titans, having an experienced head in the hooking role after Nathan Friend’s contract with the Titans expires at the end of this year, is crucial in developing its young spine.

Taylor, Elgey and Roberts will all benefit from Nathan Peats’ match awareness, which, despite him being just 25 years old, is amongst the most finely tuned in the competition.

The only negative I can see for the Gold Coast is that Peats is among four other hookers currently contracted to the Titans. Fortunately, he has plenty of experience playing in the backrow, particularly at lock, from his time at the Rabbitohs and can play in that position if circumstances require him to.

For Peats personally, the game against the Panthers signaled the start of a new chapter in his Rugby League career.

Despite the perceived silver linings, I still resent the circumstances in which Peats and Parramatta parted ways.

Just last year he played thirty-six minutes against the Roosters with a broken neck, toughing it out for his teammates and the pride he had in the jumper. It speaks volumes about the toughness of Peats, both mentally and physically, and the commitment he has to a team and its players.

His selflessness is a hallmark of the way he plays Rugby League.

When he became the sacrificial lamb to cure Parramatta’s salary cap deficit of $570,000, the comradery and mateship forged between him and his Parramatta teammates through two and a half seasons in the blue and gold was prematurely and unjustly relinquished.

It’s disappointing that in an age where cynicism and large paychecks trump club loyalty, that the one player who embodies fidelity is moved on through the ineptitude of an imprudent hierarchy.

Despite all this, Nathan Peats is a crusader for modern generation footballers. Upon learning his fate following the salary cap debacle, he had every right to feel betrayed by the administrators and the club, but his diplomatic responses to the media’s enquiries over his treatment is a testament to his character.

Instead of blaming others, Peats handled himself with the utmost dignity, acknowledging that Rugby League is a ‘business’, and remained optimistic about a new start on the Gold Coast.

I hope for both he and the Titans sake that karma takes its course, and they continue their ascendancy towards the top eight and beyond in season 2016.

England V Sri Lanka Series Preview 2016

An appetite for test cricket has grown significantly over its three-month hiatus.

AB de Villiers exploits and King Kohli’s dominance on the IPL stage for RCB have made for regular headlines over the past few months, yet it’s the guile and resolve under late-May skies on a green seamer that a seasoned cricket fan has for months yearned for.

The World T20 is now all but a distant memory for England, who turn to the games most classical format seeking redemption for the final over heartbreak of a Carlos Brathwaite masterstroke.

Sri Lanka on the other hand, will head into the first test at Headingley today hoping to replicate the feats of the 2014 series, which saw them triumph convincingly over the hosts in all three formats.

It’s worth mentioning at this stage that the series will be decided by an ECB initiative, which sees all sides; Sri Lanka, Pakistan and England, accrue points across the three formats throughout the summer.

These points are then tallied up and attributed to an aggregate total that will decide who hoists the trophy at the conclusion of the tour.

Sri Lanka –

The absence of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sanagakkarra from the score sheet will likely prevent any hopes Sri Lanka has of recreating its 2014 fairytale.

Sri Lanka drew both its tour matches against county sides Essex and Leicestershire, and will confront one of the more difficult batting wickets in England during the first test.

An inexperienced top order will be tasked with combating a Jimmy Anderson in-swinger and the seam movement of Stuart Broad on a deck synonymous for assisting fast bowlers, particularly during spring.

Karunaratne and likely Headingly debutant Shanaka were the only Sri Lankan’s to score hundreds in the two game series leading up to the first test.

Perhaps more concerning was the fact that on both occasions the Sri Lankans were heavily outscored by their opposition.

In the case of Essex, a side currently sitting atop the table in the second division, Sri Lanka managed just 254 batting first, before a Tom Westley – Jaik Mickleburgh master class saw Essex pile on 412 for the loss of just four wickets.

I’m not sure whether that says more about Sri Lanka’s batting or bowling.

Though, Sri Lanka can take inspiration from what New Zealand did to England in their last start at Headingley.

Tasked with 455 for victory, Mark Craig and Kane Williamson took a combined six wickets on the final day to draw the two match series and send England into the Ashes with their tails between their legs.

Sri Lankan spinners Siriwardana and Herath will be buoyed by Headingley’s propensity to turn during the last few days.

The two games played at the venue so far this season in the championship, however, have proved ineffective for spinners.

On just one occasion, in the second innings between Yorkshire and Surrey just over a week ago, did a spinner make their mark on the wickets column.

That was Joe Root, claiming the wickets of Kumar Sangakkarra and Steven Davies on the final day.

Adil Rashid is yet to take a wicket for Yorkshire at Headingley this season.

England –

Barely a series goes by without hearing about the English top order and its vacillation.

As Cook approaches yet another milestone wearing the three lions, all eyes will be firmly fixed on his accomplice, Alex Hales.

Having averaged just seventeen in eight innings during England’s triumph over South Africa, Hales’ development as an opening batsman will be an intriguing sub plot to keep an eye on throughout the summer.

Nick Compton is another player who will be scrutinised over every ball he faces against Sri Lanka.

In his first home series since his return to the English side last year, Compton will have the likes of Alex Lyth, Gary Balance and Sam Robson chomping at his heels to get back into the side.

This series should prove a pivotal one in the outcome of his future in an England shirt, his exodus could come as soon as July against Pakistan if he fails to upkeep or improve his current Test Match average of 31.47.

I have no doubt the class player he is, that he will be able to achieve this.

Look no further than Yorkshire duo Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, alongside Captain Cook, as the top run scorers in this series.

So far in the championship Cook has amassed 523 runs in seven innings, while Jonny Bairstow (533 runs in six innings) and Joe Root (240 runs in 3 innings) have both made a memorable start to the season.

England had one of the most successful years of any of the test playing nations last year, winning two series and drawing another.

Their only loss came in a tedious series against Pakistan in the UAE, where spin bowling unsurprisingly proved somewhat of a Kryptonite for the England batting lineup.

Their triumph over South Africa on their own turf comes to mind as the most memorable of England’s 2015/16 victories, and highlights England’s strong reliance on their bowling stocks, in particular, their swing and seam bowlers.

They showed what a force they can be on green-tops both at home and away bowling Australia out for 60 and South Africa for 83 in the same year.

If Sri Lanka is to have any hope in claiming victory, their biggest challenge will undoubtedly be their rearguard action against swing and seam and the way they utilise those conditions themselves through Matthews and Shanaka.