After the action-packed opening two games, there’s been about as much intrigue for the July 12 decider as there has been for the Game of Thrones season seven premiere.
The Blues blew Queensland off the park in Game One with their up-tempo style of play proving too much to handle for the Maroons’ ageing stars. The 28-4 scoreline was meant to herald a changing of the guard, the end of a dynasty, the arrival of a new world order.
Few could argue with that prediction when NSW skipped out to a 16-6 half-time lead against Kevin Walters’s new-look side at ANZ Stadium. But just like the Mayans found out in 2012, not all prophecies come true.
Queensland produced the sort of second-half comeback that has defined them over the years, with Dane Gagai’s late try and Johnathan Thurston’s sideline conversion getting them home by two points in a game for the ages.
It was the sort of drama that creative types in Hollywood yearn to work into their scripts, but the real stuff was just getting started.
Thurston’s clutch conversion would prove to be his final act on the Origin stage with the champion playmaker ruled out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. He was joined in the casualty ward by Bronco Darius Boyd, with scans revealing he had broken his thumb in the Game Two win.
As a result, the Maroons were forced to make several changes for the decider with rookie Cameron Munster thrust unto the halves alongside Storm teammate Cooper Cronk, while Michael Morgan was picked out of position at left centre. Uncapped Bronco Ben Hunt was picked on the bench ahead of Sea Eagles star Daly Cherry-Evans, and there is every chance Walters will spring some late changes before kick-off.
Things have been just as hectic south of the border with Blues skipper Boyd Cordner battling a calf injury he picked up in Origin II. His preparation has been disrupted but it looks as though he’ll play on Wednesday. Dragons duo Tyson Frizell (ribs) and Josh Dugan (knee) also picked up knocks playing for the Red V but are both on track to play.
Despite all the injury concerns, the Blues are set to go with the same 17 for all three games for the first time since 1996.
Why the Maroons can win: They’re at home, they’re set to farewell Thurston and possibly Cronk and they have won 10 of the past 11 series. There are 438 reasons why the Maroons can win on Wednesday, but their trump card is the Storm connection. The ladder leaders have six players in the Queensland squad (Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Will Chambers, Tim Glasby and Cameron Munster) and it’s that familiarity that gives them the edge. The last time the Maroons had six Storm players in their squad was in the 2008 decider, when Israel Folau bagged a double and Slater scored the winner as Queensland claimed the series with a 16-10 win in Sydney. If the game is in the balance, expect the Storm sextet to come up with a trick shot that they’ve been practising for years.
Why the Blues can win: Similar to their northern rivals, there are a number of reasons why Laurie Daley’s men can win. But here’s the most telling. If they can get their interchanges right, the Blues boast a considerable advantage on the bench. Take nothing away from the Maroons, but it’s clear NSW have more game-breakers at their disposal riding the pine. Wade Graham is the man most likely to turn the game on its head and we’ve already seen what he’s capable of in Game One with a try assist and several classy touches in attack. Jake Trbojevic was just about best on ground in Sydney with 114 metres, 26 tackles and a line break assist that led to a try. David Klemmer has been a battering ram this series, averaging 173 metres per game off the bench, while utility Jack Bird is the ace in the deck waiting to break a game open with his speed and flair. If Daley can inject his guys at the right time then the Blues will be well placed to get the win.
The history: Played 110; Queensland 59; NSW 49; Drawn 2. Suncorp Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for the Maroons with the men north of the Tweed claiming eight wins from the past 10 matches at the venue. Should the Blues win, it’d be the first time since the 1998 series that all three matches were won by the travelling team.
What are the odds: The money is running 60-40 in favour of NSW in Sportsbet’s head-to-head market and the Blues 13-plus is actually the best backed winning margin. Despite the love for the visitors, Dane Gagai is the most popular in the first try-scorer market after getting the final two tries of Game Two. 70 per cent of the money is on the over 30.5 points so punters are expecting a high-scoring affair.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assist referee: Gerard Sutton. Sideline officials: Chris Butler and Brett Suttor.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7pm (Australia time).
NRL.com predicts: There is no tougher assignment than heading up to Suncorp Stadium to take on a champion with it all on the line. That’s what they told Jeff Horn. He’s now a world champion. The Maroons have the ‘Hornet’ in their camp, but we’re predicting the Blues to land the knockout blow and claim a famous series win in enemy territory just like their 2005 predecessors. The dry track will suit their style so expect Mitchell Pearce and Josh Dugan to star on the ride edge as the Blues break their drought by 10 points.
Queensland Maroons – Will Chambers (Melbourne Storm), Gavin Cooper (North Queensland Cowboys), Cooper Cronk (Melbourne Storm), Dane Gagai (Newcastle Knights), Matt Gillett (Brisbane Broncos), Tim Glasby (Melbourne Storm), Coen Hess (North Queensland Cowboys), Valentine Holmes (Cronulla Sharks), Ben Hunt (Brisbane Broncos), Josh McGuire (Brisbane Broncos), Michael Morgan (North Queensland Cowboys), Cameron Munster (Melbourne Storm), Dylan Napa (Sydney Roosters), Josh Papalii (Canberra Raiders), Billy Slater (Melbourne Storm), Cameron Smith (c) (Melbourne Storm), Jarrod Wallace (Gold Coast Titans)
NSW Blues – 1. James Tedesco, 2. Brett Morris, 3. Josh Dugan, 4. Jarryd Hayne, 5. Blake Ferguson, 6. James Maloney, 7. Mitchell Pearce, 8. Aaron Woods, 9. Nathan Peats, 10. Andrew Fifita, 11. Boyd Cordner, 12. Josh Jackson, 13. Tyson Frizell; Interchange: 14. David Klemmer, 15. Wade Graham, 16. Jake Trbojevic, 17. Jack Bird, 18. Jack de Belin