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Let's Talk Origin - the Middle Third
It's now less than 2 months until the beast which is State Of Origin is unleashed on us once more, so with plenty of debate around who lines up & where for each State, we weigh in for our first instalment of the year.
Look back in time through the Rugby League archives at any big match preview or analysis and you'll no doubt see the old saying - ‘It will be won and lost in the engine room'. In modern times, it's referred to by many as ‘the middle third'. Whichever terminology you use, State Of Origin is certainly no different. The war of attrition up front plays a vital part in determining the outcome. In today's game, the roles of both Front-Rowers and Locks are much the same so that's where our focus lands this week.
The retirements of both Paul Gallen (NSW) and Corey Parker (QLD) from the Origin arena leave both states with big shoes to fill, but for the Maroons the job became a whole lot tougher when Matt Scott tore his ACL in Round 2 which will see him out of action for the season.
INCUMBENTS - QLD
JOSH McGUIRE - After making the move into Parker's 13 jersey at club level this year, McGuire has made every post a winner and looks to be in the box seat to do so in the Origin arena as well. Always a player with a strong work rate, the Broncos lock has averaged 135 metres and 35 tackles a game this year to again lead the way in an all-star pack. The move to lock has resulted in him punching out more minutes this year where he's averaging 63 a game, but he looks more than capable of getting through the 80 if called upon. Now with 5 Origins under his belt McGuire looks ready to rip in a starting Maroons pack.
INCUMBENTS - NSW
DAVID KLEMMER - Coming out of last year's series, one of the biggest questions was who replaces Gallen at Lock and whilst he also played plenty of Origin football at prop as well, the 13 jersey for NSW is well and truly up for grabs. Not long after the question was asked last year, Klemmer was quick to put his hand up after a successful move to Lock for the Bulldogs. After bursting onto the Origin scene two years ago big Klem had many excited at the prospect of ‘The next MG' wreaking havoc on the Maroons for years to come. Solid enough off the bench through last year's series, albeit less spectacular his big frame made plenty of inroads through the middle. A strong start to the season this year, including a man of the match performance on the weekend where he ran for 244 metres, made 5 tackle busts and set up a valuable try looks to have him locked into a Sky Blue jersey again this year. There's plenty of competition for the 13 jersey but even if he misses out on that, a spot on the bench at the very least should be his.
Not so assured of spots are James Tamou and Andrew Fifita. Coach Daley has already stated Fifita's off field dramas from last year won't count against him leaving form as his only obstacle. It's not that he's in bad form by any stretch, but after his Grand Final performance last year the bar is set pretty high. Perhaps just a little shy on match fitness, he should really be ripping and rearing to go come Origin time so is a probable selection.
That leaves Tamou and with 14 games of Origin experience he has more Origins under his belt than any other forward in the current setup. Apart from his breakthrough series back in 2012 though, he hasn't really bent the Maroons defensive line and with plenty of young tyros knocking down the door, surely something has to give.
THE RECALLED - QLD
JOSH PAPALII - Whilst big Papa plays his football on the Raiders left edge at club level he's more than capable of playing through the middle as evidenced in the opening 2 games of last year's series. Coming off the bench, Papalii was an absolute rock for the Maroons coming up with some big charges to lift his troops on numerous occasions. Has started his 2017 campaign in fine form running for an average 134 metres with plenty of aggression. His footwork before the line looks even sharper this year resulting in 3 line-breaks and 2 try assists. Throw in 12 tackle busts and 7 offloads and you have one of the form forwards of the competition. At the very least, he earns back his bench spot after missing game 3 through injury last year, but could also be a chance of nabbing Parker's vacant 13 jersey if he continues in his current run of form.
THE RECALLED - NSW
TRENT MERRIN/BOYD CORDNER - Most good judges are speculating about Merrin regaining his Blues jersey and with good reason. After a change of clubs resulted in a slower than usual start last year, Merrin was overlooked for the first time since breaking into the Origin arena back in 2011. It didn't take him long to find his feet though and he ended up playing a central figure in the Panthers late season surge into Week 2 of the Finals. Blessed with footwork, strength and the ability to offload he was rewarded with selection in the Australian team for the Four Nations last year where he was again strong. With 13 Origins to his name he brings experience and looks ready to finally make an impact at this level if given the chance at some relevant game time.
Whilst everyone is tipping Cordner to come back onto the Blues left edge after missing games 2 and 3 through injury last year, the left field option is to move him into the middle and start him at lock. With Wade Graham in outstanding touch also on the left edge it may become a nescessity to fit them both in. There's no doubt Cordner will be there somewhere, he's strongly tipped as another Captaincy option. The tough back-rower runs the ball with plenty of determination these days and can hit with the best of them in defence making him more than capable of playing through the middle. It's also worth noting he won a premiership with the 13 on his back in 2013 where he worked through the middle, but also was given free rein to drift further left upon entering the opposition's red zone giving the Roosters an added edge runner in attack.
ROOKIES/BOLTERS - QLD
DYLAN NAPA was all but pencilled in to Matt Scott's starting jersey until the Maroons were dealt another blow on the injury front on the weekend with the big red head rolling his ankle. Napa has been ready for Origin for the best part of 2 years now and would likely have debuted last year if not being one of the 8 ruled ineligible for not meeting curfew in the emerging Maroons camp. Listed to return in Round 10 he will need to show enough match fitness in 2 weeks to ensure Coach Walters has faith in picking him for Game one.
The real BOLTER for the Maroons could be JARROD WALLACE. After making the move an hour South down the M1 from Brisbane to the Gold Coast in search of more minutes, Wallace has found himself a home in the Titans front-row. Averaging a rare 65 minutes of game time for a front-rower, the move has certainly paid off and with an average 113 running metres and 36 tackles per game he's more than repaying the faith. There's nothing particularly out of the box about Wallace, but his no nonsense approach to his work is everything Queensland have built their pack around making him a perfect fit if Coach Walters opts for youth over experience.
ROOKIES/BOLTERS - NSW
Where to start here? There's plenty of quality forwards putting their hand up for selection. Dale Finucane has been consistently good for a couple of years now. Jack De Belin and Regan Campbell-Gillard continue to develop their games and get better. Junior Paulo has the size and skill to turn a game on its head while fellow Raiders prop Shannon Boyd made his Test debut last year yet somehow has hardly been mentioned.
There's 3 that are really knocking down the door though and all for different reasons.
A major component of the Shark's Premiership last year was their line-speed and leading the way was MATT PRIOR. Whilst there's been plenty of talk about him being read to step up to Origin level on the back of his outstanding Finals campaign last year where he stepped up his running game, line-speed should be the big tick next to his name. It's an area the Blues have failed to match the Maroons in for a long time and they desperately need someone to lead the way.
The barnstorming start to the year of new Dragons prop PAUL VAUGHAN has been nothing short of remarkable. Averaging 27 tackles and 146 metres per week in just 49 minutes of game time his work rate has been strong, but it's the impact he's leaving on games that has really been noticeable. With 2 tries, 4 line-breaks and 16 tackle busts, the power running bookend has been tearing into opposition defences and his game appears suited to bending the Maroons brick wall. To be fair, he's in a purple patch of form right now so needs to deliver consistently between now and game one to come into serious consideration, but there's no doubt he's charged onto Coach Daley's radar.
Last but certainly not least is Manly Lock JAKE TRBOJEVIC. In the midst of a breakout season last year, Jake along with Brother Tom was named as a development player for game 3. A hard-working old school forward that can also ball-play before the line Trbojevic is ready to make a big impression on the Origin arena. Averaging 37 tackles per game but it's the way he makes them that tells the story. One of the rare players in the modern game who are willing to bend their back in every tackle and cut blokes in half with a copybook technique. Settling on 3 players in the Blues starting back-row looms as a massive headache for Coach Daley, but you can just picture the blonde headed Manly lock with the Sky Blue 13 on his back chopping Maroons in half in the opening 20 minutes of the contest.