NSW v Queensland: Origin II Preview
NSW VB Blues v Queensland XXXX Maroons
Melbourne Cricket Ground
After a typically tight Origin tussle in the series opener it was the experience and polish of the Maroons that eventually just wrested a match that a young and energetic Blues outfit had continually threatened to claim without ever quite finding the killer blow.
Truth be told it was only the Blues' ironclad goal-line defence that kept them in the match throughout a second half where they were often their own worst enemies, repeatedly inviting the Queenslanders to shut them out of the game before repelling them at the line.
With the scores tied up in the closing stages the Blues famously twice failed to set properly for field goals, once to take the lead and once to square things after Cooper Cronk had coolly slotted yet another Origin one-pointer.
After some soul-searching and far too many 'what if' type questions for Daley's Blues squad they've dusted themselves up and will be stronger in Game Two.
Not just for the experience some of the rookies have gained but also for the return of inspirational skipper, and last year's player of the series, Paul Gallen, as well as Kangaroos winger Brett Morris, who was also sorely missed in the opening loss.
Their inclusions mean Josh Jackson reverts to the bench and Andrew Fifita and Daniel Tupou miss out.
It's all been smooth sailing for the Maroons, aside from a knee injury ruling Cronk out, with Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans coming in as a straight swap in the only change to Mal Meninga's side.
All 34 players will be looking forward to running out onto the hallowed turf of the MCG for the first and potentially last time in their careers.
Watch out Queensland: The Blues only lost the first game by a point and have an awful lot of improvement in them, particularly with Gallen back. Under-fire halves Mitch Pearce and Trent Hodkinson copped more than their share of criticism after the Game One loss and will be better for having an extra camp to build on their combination.
Gallen himself showed that age and torn glutes can't slow him down, returning with a bang after a two-month layoff in Cronulla's gritty win over the Roosters in Round 13, churning out almost 240 metres and 37 tackles in a mammoth 73-minute stint.
Watch out NSW: What Queensland lose in experience and polish with Cronk out, they gain in unpredictability and game-breaking power from Cherry-Evans. As good as Cronk is, his success over many years has been built on structure, perfection, professionalism and dedication – not the kind of raw talent and power that the Manly half brings. Cherry-Evans, perhaps more than any other playmaker in the game right now with the possible exception of his Game Two halves partner Johnathan Thurston, can break a game wide open in a matter of minutes.
He was well below his best last year standing in for Cronk due to an interrupted preparation, but with his playing future sorted and a whole camp fully fit to grow into his role, he shapes as arguably the most important player on the field on Wednesday night. Thurston is in red-hot form but DCE will need to be the best he can be to ensure the Maroons don't give the Blues a sniff. His 11 games this year in an underwhelming Manly side have yielded nine try assists and seven line-break assists but it is his running game that is the biggest inclusion for Queensland; his six line breaks are twice as many as Cronk, Pearce and Hodkinson (all one apiece) have earned combined this year.
Key Match-Up: Mitchell Pearce v Johnathan Thurston. Pearce has endured more speculation over his selections than anyone in Origin history; Thurston has been an automatic and uncontested selection for a record 31 games in a row and counting. Pearce had a solid outing in Game One, kicking beautifully in the first half and kicking long under pressure throughout the second for a total game-high 525 metres. Thurston, after a below-par series last year (by his lofty standards) was constantly threatening without ever unleashing but will need to take extra game management responsibility with Cronk out, which the Maroons will be hoping doesn't detract from his outstanding attacking potential.
With DCE named in the halfback position there is a conundrum for Mal Meninga as to exactly how the Sea Eagle fits into this side and what role he'll play. Cronk is a perfect foil for Thurston and for Meninga's game plan. DCE is a different sized cog in an otherwise well-oiled machine and it will be up to Meninga to recalibrate that machine in time for Wednesday night. Thurston and Cherry-Evans have yet to combine well but they'll need to against what is certain to be an improved Blues outfit. For whichever side wins this one, it is likely their No.6 will have a big say in proceedings.
The History: Played 103; NSW 46, QLD 55, Drawn 2. There have now been seven games in Melbourne; the Blues won three of the first four but the last of those was in 1997. The Maroons have won the past three on the trot – all three of those falling within their eight-year unbeaten reign. This is the first Origin at the MCG since 1997, when 25,000 people saw John Simon's field goal help the Blues to a 2-0 series lead with a 15-14 win
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet hasn't seen any interest in Queensland at the shorter price. Instead, NSW are all the rage with seven times the cash invested on the Blues to square the series. NSW 1-12 has more money on it than all of the other margin options combined.
Match Officials: Gerard Sutton & Ben Cummins; Touch Judges: Nick Beashel & Brett Suttor; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton and Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: As always with Origin it is a total coin flip and like the first game could come down to a single moment. But with Cronk out, and with it his slick Storm connection with hooker Cameron Smith and fullback Billy Slater, and the Blues boosted by two big inclusions and an extra game to learn each other's styles, we'll tip the Blues to square the series with a two-point win in yet another low-scoring slugfest.
This article first appeared on NRL.com