Tackling six talking points from Round 10

A set of six talking points covering all the rugby league world has to offer.

Game of the season

There have been some great matches so far this season, but none have come close to Friday night’s classic between the Broncos and Roosters. With the exception of their clash earlier in the season, these two teams are building quite the entertaining rivalry. There was a classic encounter back in Round 6 of 2015, where Ben Hunt crossed in Golden Point to hand the Broncos a four-point win. And who can forget Round 11 last year, a match best remembered for Jamayne Isaako’s forty metre Houdini act to sink the Roosters in the 77th minute. It is hard to see any match going past Friday night’s thriller for game of the season.

Broncos on the move

Friday night might go down as the moment the Brisbane Broncos turned their season around. There were plenty of good signs for fans, including an impressive return to Rugby League for former Cronulla hooker James Segeyaro. The most impressive part of Brisbane’s performance was their defence against a Roosters side featuring two of the best attacking players in the game right now: Tedesco and Mitchell.

Dragons in a hole

The Dragons are either in the middle of one of their worst form slumps in recent memory or fast approaching the end of their premiership window. The Dragons last lost four games in a row back in Round 21 of 2016, where they went down to Canterbury 13-10. The following week they lost their fifth straight match against the Broncos 8-12. With the exception of that season, the Dragons have had a relatively good run since the start of 2015, making the finals on three occasions. With Gareth Widdop departing for England at the end of the season and Jack de Belin’s long-term future uncertain, the Dragons could be about to enter a rebuilding period. As a Dragons fan this is hard to write, but it seems they are now struggling to keep in touch with the teams inside the top eight. So far this year, three of their four wins have been by a margin of 2 points or less. This reminds me of 2016 where their attack was virtually non-existent and most wins earned by a slim margin.

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Brown the saviour

Nathan Brown has been heavily criticised since taking over the reins at the Knights, but he deserves to have praise heaped on him for his side’s turn around. A number of Knights sides over the last few years have fallen apart following a run of losses. This one has bounced back into the top eight. Mitchell Pearce was considered a spent force after the first few rounds but suddenly he is in the frame for Origin selection. Danny Levi’s career was also headed down a dark path but he too has found form – perhaps the best of his career. Brown’s finest move, though, was bringing Kurt Mann into the starting side in place of Connor Watson and allowing him to do what he does best: run the ball. Accepting he had made an error by moving Ponga to the halves is another big tick against his name.

An Immortal in waiting

Andrew Johns took the Knights to their first premiership back in 1997 against Manly and backed it up in 2001 against Parramatta. This period was, without doubt, the best in the club’s history. If there is one man that can return the club to these heights, it is Kalyn Ponga. Having followed his career closely since his debut game for in 2016 for the Cowboys, I have no doubt we are about to witness history unfold as he becomes one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Whether he surpasses Billy Slater as the best Fullback of all time is anyone’s guess, but I believe he will go past Cameron Smith as the game’s greatest point scorer by the time he calls time on his career many years down the track.

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Farewell Cooper

Cooper Cronk gave a lot of credit to his former Melbourne teammates for the career he has forged. But as his form at the Roosters has shown, he is a fine player in his own right and not merely a product of those around him. As a Queenslander, I will never forget his series-sealing field goal during the third and final game of the 2012 Origin series at Suncorp Stadium. If there is one thing you can count on, it is the Roosters growing another leg to deliver Cronk one last Premiership.

Tackling six talking points from Round 9

A set of six talking points covering all the rugby league world has to offer

Magic Round a hit

There were many critics of Magic Round during the weeks leading up to the event. Some questioned why it was necessary to take an entire round to Brisbane, while others feared for crowd numbers during matches not featuring Queensland based teams. But these and many other questions were answered across the weekend and it now appears as if the NRL’s Magic Round has more supporters than doubters. It is common knowledge that Brisbane wants to host a Grand Final, but with new stadiums being built in Sydney and a memorandum of understanding current between the NRL and NSW Government, it looks unlikely to happen anytime soon. Outside of Origin Brisbane’s only big events involve the Broncos, and for a proud Rugby League state with a strong base of fans from interstate clubs, this doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. The Magic Round brought a Grand Final like atmosphere to Brisbane. If first impressions are anything to go by, it could grow to become a genuine drawcard for the NRL and another big event that Brisbane based Rugby League fans can look forward to each year.

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Sharks resilient

The Sharks’ back-to-back wins against Melbourne and Gold Coast are quite remarkable given the number of injuries that have decimated their roster to this point in the season. In fact, their form has been so impressive they are currently $13 with the bookies to win the premiership and sit behind only the Roosters, Storm and Rabbitohs. The young players that have come into the side to replace the injured stars have done a brilliant job. The older statesman like Morris, Dugan and Prior have also stepped up to ensure the injury crisis wouldn’t impact the Sharks’ season. With the likes of Moylan and Johnson to return soon and Andrew Fifita’s injury not as bad as first thought, Sharks fans have every right to be excited about the potential of finals football in 2019.

Parramatta a write-off?

It is a well-known fact in Rugby League that no team has won the premiership after conceding 50 points in the regular season. Parramatta gave up 64 against the Storm on Saturday night. For fans of the club, this would have come as a huge shock given their bright start to the season. With a host of big-name players gunning for contracts and a run of relatively easy matches over the next few weeks – including a clash with South Sydney during the Origin period – expect the Eels to bounce back and maintain their position in the top eight. If results go the other way though, and the Cowboys and Panthers manage to steal some much-needed victories, more questions will be asked of Brad Arthur and the off-contract players.

Blues’ halves debate a blessing for Maroons

Queensland are big outsiders for the first Origin match at Suncorp Stadium, but with Maloney and Cleary struggling for form and talk swirling that they will be replaced, the Maroons are in with a huge chance of snatching victory. It is rare for a winning Origin side to be the subject of so much debate, and even rarer for the losing side to be settled on their combinations in key positions. At no point during the Maroons’ dominance was there talk about dropping key players over poor NRL form. Mal Meninga’s policy was stick with the players that have done the job at rep level and don’t pick sides on NRL form alone. With Cameron Munster in form, Michael Morgan going about his business quietly, and Ben Hunt putting in some solid performances amidst the Dragons’ injury crisis, the Maroons will be quietly confident they have NSW’s number for game one on home soil.

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Obstruction rule a pain

In 2013 the NRL had a problem with obstruction rulings. Many sides were taking advantage of the rule which the NRL had made ‘black and white’ to ensure consistency of rulings across all games. Following much conjecture, the NRL amended the rule to allow video referees to use their discretion in such situations. After nine rounds of the 2019 season, it seems as if the ‘black and white’ system has made a resurgence. There were several instances across Magic Round where tries would have been allowed had the referees in the Bunker used their discretion. There will be more instances of defensive players taking a dive to ensure tries are disallowed if a ‘black and white’ approach to obstruction rulings is allowed to continue.

Last tackle – Are the defending premiers vulnerable in the last 20 minutes? 

The Roosters ran out 30-24 victors over a resurgent Canberra Raiders outfit on Sunday, but Trent Robinson will hold grave concerns for his side’s defensive frailties in the last 20 minutes of matches. If anyone is going to catch the Roosters this season, it will be the side that can limit the damage in the first 60 minutes. This could prove a difficult task given the attacking firepower the Roosters have across the park. Could the Broncos, fresh off a win at home against Manly, repeat the dose on Friday night and add to the list of upsets this season?

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Tackling six talking points from Round 8

A set of six talking points covering all the rugby league world has to offer.

Sivo a Star

There have been many people asking whether Maika Sivo will turn out to be as good as Semi Radradra. Following his performance against the Dragons on Sunday, I’m prepared to say yes. Radradra’s greatest attribute was that he could score from just about anywhere on the field; he was as dangerous close to the line as he was running the ball from his own end. Sivo presents the same threat. If early signs are anything to go by, he could become one of Parramatta’s most prolific try scorers.

Best in the game

Rugby League’s television chat shows have been caught up in ‘fullback fever’ lately. At a time when Latrell Mitchell is dominating the game from the centres, all the conversations on the game’s best player are focused on the big two fullbacks: Tedesco and Tuivasa-Sheck. Curiously, the latter has registered just 5 Dally M points through the first eight rounds of the competition despite a strong start to the season, while Tedesco sat in the top ten at the end of round 7. So far in 2019, the Roosters fullback has scored 5 tries, broken 47 tackles and run for an average of a tick over 177 metres. Tuivasa-Sheck, on the other hand, has scored 4 tries, run for an average of 180 meters per game, and broken through 43 would-be tackles. These are some impressive statistics, yet the Warriors and Roosters find themselves at opposite ends of the table. Individual performances talk in this game, but wins speak far louder. Tuivasa-Sheck’s absence on the Dally M leader board can be partly blamed on the Warriors mixed performances thus far.

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Knights on the charge

The Knights are back on track with back-to-back wins against the Eels and Warriors. Just a couple of weeks ago all the talk was about how soon Nathan Brown would be shown the door. With three wins and five losses to their name through eight rounds, the season could still go south in a hurry. But there are signs of a renewed confidence amongst the playing group that bodes well for the next few rounds. Pearce is seemingly back in form, David Klemmer is running for big metres, and Danny Levi has – to coin an overused rugby league phrase – grown another leg. They clash with the Bulldogs next weekend at Suncorp where they could earn their third win in as many starts before heading to Mudgee to take on what could be an injury-affected Dragons side.

Pick and stick a non-negotiable

With just a month to go until Queensland and New South Wales run out onto Suncorp Stadium for the first game of the Origin series, speculation around who will and won’t be selected is beginning to mount. Last week we heard reports that Cameron Smith would make his return to an injury-hit Queensland side. But perhaps the most interesting topic of Origin conversation has centred on the Blues’ halves. While Penrith has struggled for form so far this year, Fittler would be mad to overlook Maloney and Cleary. The case for in-form players like Luke Keary, Mitchell Moses and Cody Walker are convincing, but NSW should take a leaf from the legendary Maroons side that won eight straight: NRL form isn’t everything and a pick and stick approach yields dividends.

Sweet, sweet music

Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline may be turning 50 in June this year, but it has lost none of its charm. In England it is a staple at a number of major sporting events – rugby league included. So when it came over the loudspeakers at Bankwest Stadium on Sunday for the Dragons v Eels clash, I was immediately transported to The Jungle in Castleford, where the tune is belted out following a home win. If there is something I’ve felt all sports in Australia are missing, it’s a good old sing along in the crowd. Long may Sweet Caroline live on at Bankwest.

Broncos’ halves conundrum

With Kodi Nikorima departing the Broncos for long-term job security at the Warriors, there are question marks now around what Anthony Seibold will do with his halves. 18-year-old Tom Dearden filled the void at halfback in the Broncos clash with South Sydney and he is the man they have ostensibly placed faith in to continue in this role going forward. But if the losses keep mounting over the course of the next few weeks, Seibold’s hand may be forced. Mitchell Moses is currently off contract at the Eels and you can bet your house on more reports rumouring a move to Brisbane if they are unable to muster a win or two from their upcoming games at Suncorp. While it’s a long way off, a bottom eight finish for the Broncos would leave a number of players in a vulnerable position heading into the 2020 season. Moses will not be off contract forever so the Broncos’ form over the next few weeks may dictate the course of action they take.

NSW must adjust their attitude if they are to change their Origin fortunes

There is a sense of what could have been about this Origin series for New South Wales.

After game one they were heavy favourites having outplayed a Queensland side that was on the verge of being forced to make the largest number of personnel changes since the start of their dynasty.

The first half of game two told a similar story – NSW was dominant, Queensland slow, wasteful and sloppy.

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But from that point forward, the professionalism of the Queensland side, their desire to win, and ability to play through adversity on and off the field shone through to deliver one of the finest series victories in recent memory.

Unlike previous years, they had to overcome injuries to three members of the old firm, speculation that rifts between coach Walters and the selection panel were beginning to form, and claw their way back from one-nil down in the series following a humiliating defeat at the cauldron in game one.

Then there were the subplots – Slater left out of game one and the in-form DCE snubbed in favour of Ben Hunt, who had been playing reserve grade for Ipswich just weeks earlier following speculation that he was on the outer with coach Bennett and the Brisbane Broncos.

And what about the NSW fans lapping up the selections of Glasby, the forward nobody had heard of, and Coen Hess, the boy who was ‘too soft’ and unprepared for Origin.

Easy victory they said.

The series was there for the taking, and NSW, for the millionth time, squandered the opportunity. That is why the efforts of Queensland’s players should not be underappreciated. For so many reasons, this will go down as the finest series victory in their 12 years of dominance.

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Knowing this, heads must roll in NSW camp.

Mitchell Pearce has been given more opportunities than an incompetent law intern who has cost his firm millions of dollars in reparation and must now be told his time is up.

So often he has been the fall guy for NSW’s failures even when their forwards are really to blame for a poor performance.

But his record is abysmal for a player who has more Origin caps than legends like Peter Sterling and Ricky Stuart.

Good player or not, he hasn’t shown he is capable at Origin level and if NSW gives him one last opportunity next year it will be to the detriment of the side who, like a derelict apartment building, are in desperate need of an overhaul.

The difficulty for NSW selectors will be deciding who to replace him with.

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There are plenty of talented young halfbacks waiting in the wings but talent doesn’t make an Origin player.

If NSW haven’t learnt this lesson after watching Pearce play 18 Origin matches with a lowly win percentage of 28, then they should prepare themselves for another 5 years of disappointment.

Club form is often a deceiving barometer of a player’s ability.

If we work on this principle, many of those young NSW halves tearing up the NRL will not make the grade.

The NSW selectors must also decide what to do with the likes of Woods, Graham, Hayne and even Peats who have shown glimpses across their respective careers but have failed to deliver in the same consistent fashion as their Queensland counterparts.

The same question must be asked: who replaces them.

Farah was dropped by Laurie and his advisors earlier this year and is little hope of ever returning, meaning the selectors must dip their toe in the pond of youth and draft in a McInnes, otherwise they will be stuck with a player like Peter Wallace who is prone to injury and, much like Farah, is past his best.

In the forwards, the Blues are blessed with talent, but in true NSW fashion, are at sixes-and-sevens when deciding who to pick and what combination to run with.

Vaughan was the form prop around the time the first Origin sides were picked but was omitted when it looked like he was a certain starter.

The same goes for the likes of Tom Trebojevic and Dylan Walker who have shown they are in the kind of form that warrants Origin selection, yet were left out in favour of players like the overhyped and now overrated Jarryd Hayne and Blake Ferguson, who has run in off his wing more than NSW has lost games in the last 12 years.

A bit of reshuffling would’ve seen them squeeze into the side quite easily, even if it meant Trbojevic had to play on a wing and Walker at left centre.

Queensland did it with Michael Morgan and Cameron Munster in game three and it worked to good effect.

But do NSW have the brains or even the courage to make what might seem like bold positional and personnel changes?

Probably not, but sticking to what hasn’t worked for eleven of the past twelve years is the definition of insanity and will result in more heartbreak for NSW fans.

Each and every loss across twelve unsatisfying years hasn’t been met with the appropriate changes.

Mind boggling decision after mind boggling decision has rendered NSW’s past three Origin campaigns hopeless and shown why they are one of the most laughable outfits in Australian sport.

If they don’t give a handful of players their marching orders next season then they will completely lose touch with what it takes to win Origin.

This includes the coach, as likeable as he is. Some have said calls for his head are ludicrous given he has had just five cracks at the job, but Origin is result driven and Laurie hasn’t been able to shape the players at his disposal into a unit that can challenge the might of Queensland’s legends.

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Maybe that says more about the selectors than it does Laurie himself but he cannot dodge the blame any longer. It’s time someone else is given the opportunity.

Whether that is someone with the passion of an Andrew Johns or a Brad Filter, or the wisdom of a Gus Gould, is unimportant. What NSW require is someone with football smarts and a will to change the players’ attitude.

Because on Wednesday night it was attitude that once again won it for a Queensland side that knows they have it in them to beat whatever NSW throw at them.

Their comeback in Origin two, where they came from ten points behind to send the series to a decider, was possible because they have done it all before.

When NSW play from behind they look a defeated bunch who have given in to the inevitability of a loss.

James Maloney can claim NSW’s best football is capable of defeating Queensland’s but when have they shown this is the case outside of this year’s first game?

Change that attitude and the make-up of the side and maybe NSW might witness a change in fortunes.

Finest Origin series of modern era poised for thrilling finale

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JT kicking from the sideline to send the series to a decider. Photo: ABC

Queensland’s victory in Origin two will go down as one of the finest in recent memory. After the first game of the series, all the talk was centred around why the Blues were on the verge of a series victory, and how a dynasty, built around the likes of Fifita, Tedesco and Peats, was beginning to take shape. Journalists, media personalities and former players were trotting out that old line that we’ve become accustomed to hearing over the past few years – Queensland are too old, too slow. NSW, apparently, showed enough in game one to suggest that, just like that, in barely the time it takes to blink, the dominance they’ve had over the Blues for 10 of the past 11 years was over. Finished. So much so that mass changes to the Australian squad, which is currently dominated by Queensland players, were on the horizon. There truly is nothing like a bit of mid series propaganda to light the fuse.

What made the victory even sweeter was not just the fact that Queensland had been completely written off like a bashed up Toyota Land Cruiser circa 1994 after the opening game of the series, but that Thurston – Queensland’s ageless warrior – took to the field at below 100% fitness, played with a dead arm, and still managed to emerge the better of the two halfbacks, if not by a great margin. His kicking game was, by his own standards, below par, as were large chunks of his game. But still, he managed to get the job done in the only way he knows how; through determination and a burning desire to win at all costs. That is the JT way.

Much like he did against the Broncos in the Grand Final 18 months ago, Thurston produced a clutch play under the most pressurised circumstances imaginable, on the greatest stage of all. On that occasion it was a field goal in golden point. Last Wednesday it was a conversion from the sideline to put Queensland two points ahead and seal a series levelling victory that would see his swansong come in a game with something on the line. You couldn’t have scripted it any better, other than to remove the part where scans of his injured shoulder reveal he is no chance of taking the field in the decider.

Queensland’s junior brigade of Hess, Wallace, Holmes and Glasby gave fans’ heart palpitations at times – missing tackles and coughing up the ball in the Blues’ red zone – but were solid if not reliable. Glasby was the least impressive of the four debutants, letting in two tries through defence better suited to the rough-and-tumble of park footy, and will be lucky to retain his spot for the decider. But Queensland rarely mess with a winning formula. He will return in Origin three bigger and better for the experience, but needs to lift in the decider if he wishes to put his name permanently on a Maroons jersey and stave off bids from those stepping on his heels at club level.

Gavin Cooper, on his return to the side, played a game that, on another day, would have earned him far more attention and the lion’s share of the plaudits. Josh Jackson was, quite bizarrely, named man of the match, but it was Cooper who stood out like a lollipop man on a main road for the Maroons alongside Napa and McGuire, making 47 tackles and running for 108 metres.

Many more players deserve to be praised; Slater and Gagai quite obviously the stand-outs. But it was a collective effort from the Queensland side that allowed them to claw back some ascendency and reduce the ten point deficit.

Queensland’s first half was one of the most undisciplined and error-ridden in recent history. Too often they were hauled into touch by the NSW outside backs running a short side play that showed they had little understanding of the slippery under-foot conditions. To compound this issue, they were also sloppy with the ball, losing it when an attacking opportunity was beginning to form. At this stage it looked as if they had reverted back to the Queensland side of old that was wiped out by Johns and Fittler et al. in the days preceding the hand grenade thrown by Brian Fletcher, so frustrating was the way they squandered possession and blew try-scoring opportunities.

But NSW, like clockwork, threw away what looked like a forgone conclusion at half-time in a twenty-minute period from hell. The referees have been blamed. In fact, it appears they are the sole reason for the Blues’ loss if expletive laden social media rants are anything to go by. But that should not excuse the woeful second half performances of Pearce, NSW’s no. 1 scapegoat, and Hayne in particular, who would’ve put the home side in an impregnable position had he thrown a pass to an unmarked Morris just minutes before the interval.

There were refereeing blunders that had a bearing on the contest, namely the forward pass to Thurston out of dummy-half and the block on Jarryd Hayne, but it was the selfishness of a few privileged players coupled with a flawed game-plan that did the damage. Not the whistle-blowers.

It remains to be seen whether NSW are capable of replicating their first-up performance in the decider. It’s true, Queensland are at their most vulnerable right now and the future looks as if it belongs to NSW. When Thurston, Smith and Cronk part ways with the Maroons – perhaps as early as two weeks from now – Queensland will be required to unearth players with the skill and game awareness of Maloney and Pearce, who have been there and done it all before. Those currently on Queensland’s radar – Milford, Norman and Munster – are relatively fresh on the scene and are yet to taste premiership success. Maloney and Pearce have lifted a trophy together at the Roosters. They know each other’s games like the back of their hand. Queensland simply cannot match this experience.

If we’re using past performances as an indicator however, NSW will do what they always seem content with doing after a loss; make excuses, play the blame game, and twiddle their thumbs a la Homer J. Simpson at the nuclear plant while they wait for Laurie and his advisors to give them the answers. If this is the approach they take into a game that will mean more to the Queenslanders than their eighth series victory in a row, than they might as well not bother showing up. This is the departure of a future immortal we are talking about. And yes, I’m referring to Cronk.

52 – 6 was the result the last time NSW visited Suncorp Stadium for a decider. It also came at a time when NSW pundits were predicting the beginning of a Blues dynasty. Two years on and the same old mistakes are being made – complacency, arrogance and underestimating a team and its superstars that have embarrassed the Blues on 11 of the past 12 occasions.

Queensland, on the other hand, are seemingly revitalised after a horror show of a first game that was met with the usual ‘Queensland hypocrite’ rhetoric from certain outlets. Spare me the ‘dad’s army’ nonsense. This is a side capable of winning their third series in a row. Injuries to Boyd and Thurston, who will both be missing come Origin three, will hurt their chances. But if Queensland play with the same desire and shut down Fifita, Trbojevic, and Tedesco, than there is no reason why they can’t send off one of the modern day greats, possibly more, in style.

The critics who claimed Queensland’s time was up, and jumped on the Blues’ dynasty bandwagon no sooner than the eighty minutes was up at Suncorp Stadium in the opening game, have just witnessed what it takes to bounce back in Origin. When NSW departed from the style of play that served them so well in the first game, Queensland sniffed blood and pulled off a comeback victory typical of their never say die attitude. That’s the difference between the two sides at the moment. While NSW were busy organising how they would hoist the shield, Queensland were plotting and scheming ways to shut down Fifita. Had NSW had their wits about them, they would have been doing the same for Slater and Thurston. Instead, they were gripped by the hand of complacency, perhaps expecting to win. Which goes a long way to explaining why they went missing and never returned shortly after Gagai crossed in the 55th minute.

This is Origin. The game isn’t finished until eighty minutes have passed and the ball is as far as humanly possible from those capable of pulling off the kind of superhuman efforts that define the unpredictability of Origin.

The only question that now remains is whether NSW stand by Jarryd Hayne, or whether they opt in favour of 2016 villain Dylan Walker, who has been in scintillating form for Manly; the youngest of the Trbojevic brothers, Tom Turbo; or start Jack Bird, whose lack of in this discussion is bewildering, in the number four jumper. Hayne’s form at club level, the Tigers game aside, has been far from eye-catching, but then again, you’re compelled to take a punt on him because he is a supreme athlete and his past performances leave you feeling as though you’ve left out one of the modern day greats when he goes unselected.

Laurie has some tough decisions to make. Decisions that will likely decide whether, after five years of service, he’s used up all the get out of jail free cards at his disposal. Because if NSW are incapable of defeating a weakened Queensland side missing a future immortal, then changes will be made across the board. And, as we know, in this day and age, the blame is so often apportioned to the coach.

Close simply won’t cut it.

The Queensland Origin bombshells set to turn the series on its head

Kevin Walters
Kevin Walters announced his Queensland team today with one glaring omission. Photo: Adelaidenow.com.au

Kevin Walters approached today’s Origin team announcement with a hint of trepidation. Perhaps this was him coming to the sudden realisation that, for the first time in a long time, he would be without two of the finest players ever to pull on a Maroons jumper – Jonathan Thurston and Greg Inglis. But Walters is rarely phased by these kinds of adversities. He is a jovial character by nature; strong willed and a person everyone seems to get along with. The only possible explanation for his noticeable change in disposition was the fact that he, and the other Maroon’s selectors, had left Slater out of their side. A decision that would have no doubt eaten him up inside.

Slater has battled injury after debilitating injury for the past two seasons. His return earlier this year was one of the most heart-warming stories of the opening rounds. But his omission from the opening game of the Origin series paints a troubling picture for the star halfbacks’ future. With Boyd in the form of his life, reveling under the reign of Wayne Bennett, it’s hard to see him breaking back into the side unless, after game two, Queensland are two-nil down and want to avoid the humiliation of a whitewash by bringing back experienced heads with club form under their belts.

At some stage, Queensland needed to part with their champion players. For Slater, 2017 appears to be that time. It’s disappointing because had he not missed the amount of football he has over the last few years, he would have played an influential role in Queensland’s series win last year. Good form that would have seen him picked without a second thought by the selectors until he called time on his own Origin career. And of all the Queensland greats that have passed through, few deserve to end on their own terms more than Billy The Kid. There is still time though, and it is far too early to be writing off a player of his caliber. But if Boyd fires at the back, and the Oates/ Gagai wing combination lives up to its potential, than it is almost impossible to fit Slater back into the side.

Slater’s omission was far from the only tough decision Walters had to make on a seismic day for Queensland rugby league. Rather unexpectedly, Milford has been named in the number six jumper, while Thurston, who remains under an injury cloud that looks likely to keep him off the paddock for a number of weeks yet, was named as the 18th man.

Now I’ve heard across the last few hours that the Queensland selectors had to give Milford a starting spot for fear of missing out on his services altogether due to the comments made by Bennet around not releasing him had he been named on the bench. At first, I found this laughable, my thoughts were: this is Origin, if a player is selected, they will play. No one wields that much power over the selectors. But then, like many others, I thought about who we were dealing with. This is Bennett, a man who gets what he wants and never gives in. At press conferences he gets away with taunting journalists because he is Wayne Bennett. He can do what he wants with the England side, even if this is met with intense media scrutiny, because he is Wayne Bennett. And if he wants to sit a player out of Origin because he feels he is getting the rough end of the stick, than chances are he will.

There are few coaches in the NRL who wield this amount of power over whole organisations. But that is the aura Bennett possesses and the confidence he brings to the table. So yes, I agree to an extent with those who believe that Milford has been named in the starting side because, had he been where Thurston is now, Bennett may not have released him. This poses a whole host of ethical questions, such as: “how could a coach stop one of his best players from reaching the pinnacle of a rugby league player’s career?”. But that just about answers the very question it is posing. Milford is the Broncos best player and to loose him over the Origin period is to, potentially, drop a few games. Whether this is right or wrong doesn’t worry Bennett. Rugby league is business. Sponsors, investors and TV broadcasters, no to mention fans, are expecting you to perform and win games. And the only way this is possible is by putting your very best team on the paddock. So Bennett’s logic makes sense, even if it sounds a little convoluted and self concerned in its delivery.

The naming of Gagai, while surprising in a sense, was completely understandable on the selectors part. While he has played the odd pearler for Newcastle, he hasn’t been anywhere near his best for the majority of the season thus far. But because the Queensland selectors often adopt a pick and stick loyalty policy, and Gagai has been in and around the Queensland setup during the Maroons’ most successful year’s, you can understand why they have opted in his favour.

Personally, I think Gagai is part of an exclusive group of players that rise for the big occasion. We’ve seen in the past that when you stick him in an Origin jumper, he plays like a man possessed. Most Queensland fans, and those from NSW for that matter, will remember the drubbing the Maroons handed the Blues in Game three of 2015. It was the decider and, if memory serves me correctly, the Blues had outplayed Queensland at ANZ Stadium – where they lost by a field goal – and in the game they took to the MCG. You’d expect then that NSW would come out all guns blazing and blow Queensland off the park in the third and final game, but, as it happened, Queensland were the one’s inflicting the damage. 52 – 6 was the scoreline in the end and Gagai, who opened the scoring for Queensland in the fifteenth minute with a try, played the best representative game of his career. Forget the All Star game’s he’s played in and the Origins up to that point, he was fantastic on the biggest stage of them all. A sign that, when the mood strikes, he is unstoppable and as good as any of the wingers and centers currently running around in the NRL.

The final bombshell, if you can call it that, was the unveiling of Napa at prop. Again, this was fairly predictable given the injury to Matt Scott and the form Napa has shown at club level not just this year, but across the last few seasons. It will, however, be interesting to see how Napa copes with the physicality of an Origin contest. He bullies and bruises opposition players at club level; running over them like a freight train careering down the side of a mountain. But Origin is a huge step up in class and Matt Scott has been extremely dependable, if somewhat underutalised, in the number eight jumper previously, so Napa has big shoes to fill. The interesting thing to track here is how many minutes the Roosters front rower gets, and how Kevvy uses him. In the past, Scott was used mainly as an impact player, given twenty to twenty-five minutes at the start of the game and twenty to finish off when the ruck speed has slowed and the opposition forwards are starting to tire. It looks as if Napa will adopt the same role.

Other than that, Queensland were, more or less, named just as we all expected:

  • Morgan retains his place on the bench following strong club form;
  • the starting second-rowers have been reshuffled with the retirement of Corey Parker;
  • Nate Myles, despite sustaining an injury against the Titans in round 11, retains the number ten jumper;
  • Will Chambers slots into the centres in the absence of Greg Inglis;
  • and Boyd, Cronk and Smith make up the remainder of the spine.

While NSW aren’t down on troops, they too have problems they need to rectify and questions that won’t be answered until kick off in Origin one, such as the Peats/ Farrah fiasco; what to do with Mitchell Pearce; how Tedesco will perform after an indifferent few rounds for the struggling Tigers; and whether they’ve made the right move in blooding two new players.

All signs that we’re in for one of the most closely fought Origin series in some time.