While the 2018 #NRL Pre-Season is still a few weeks away, there's a bunch of warm-up clashes happeni...
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Rick's back with a final look back at the 2017 Origin series as Queensland's era of dominance stretched into a twelfth year, as well as a look ahead to the 2018 series.
Despite being installed as favourites in the series decider in enemy territory, the Blues barely fired a shot against the Maroons who turned in a near perfect opening forty minutes of football to put them in the box seat.
It's now become customary in a decider at Suncorp Stadium that the home team will fire out of the blocks and in years gone by on such occasions, the game has been over by the time the half-time siren sounded. The Blues actually did well to stay in the contest, but when the opportunity came in the second half to shift the momentum, some ill-discipline and unwillingness to compete on every play let them down.
Following Josh Dugan's try early in the half, the Blues had another chance attacking the Maroons line soon after. Despite not being able to capitalize they still had the Maroons pinned deep in their own half and under all sorts of pressure, then the ill-discipline kicked in. For the second time in as many Origin matches when the Blues were ripping into the Maroons defensively, Wade Graham gave away a silly penalty for stripping the ball to let the Maroons off the hook. The penalty swung the momentum back in the Maroons favour and from there on in they didn't look back. As talented and tough as Graham is, discipline is a key area in his game he needs to fix if he wants to continue his Origin career.
In the Blues dominant game one victory, one of the most pleasing aspects of that victory was their scrambling defence late in the contest. With a commanding lead, they continued to turn up in numbers defensively to bring a halt to what looked certain Maroons tries on a number of occasions. It appeared they finally got it, the very essence of what has made the Maroons such a champion team over the years, the willingness to just compete, play after play for the full 80 minutes.
How wrong we all were...
Competing for the full 80 minutes just isn't enough to become a successful Origin team. Competing for the entire 240 minutes across the three game series is. Maybe the Blues believed themselves they had that mentality, but the clocking off on the inside by Aaron Woods and Andrew Fifita during the Jarrod Wallace try in game three proved otherwise.
There was plenty of talk immediately following the match that the Blues ‘just don't get it' so after all these years, how do they fix it?
The only thing left to try is to become extremely ruthless at the selection table. Make the message loud and clear… if you clock off on even one play, you won't be donning the jersey in the next game. If that means Woods and Fifita are made scapegoats and aren't considered for game one next year, so be it…
Whilst the inability of the Blues to compete on every play for 240 minutes appears their biggest problem moving forward, not being able to execute at the death with the ball in hand is only a smidgeon behind.
The Blues play-makers were unable to orchestrate a single try in the final twenty minutes in all three games of this year's series. Jarryd Hayne's 60th minute touchdown in the Blues game one victory was as close as they got.
A lot of that rests upon the shoulders of halfback Mitchell Pearce after being told it was his team to run before a ball was kicked in game one. In hindsight, maybe that was the wrong call. Perhaps declaring it ‘Pearce's team' stifled the likes of James Maloney and James Tedesco who needed to be more involved in the back-end of games.
Either way, it's a massive flaw which needs to be fixed and sure to be discussed more leading up to the selection of their game one team next year.
Much of the make-up of the Maroons squad will rest around decisions from Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith on whether they will soldier on for another series or follow the great Johnathan Thurston into the representative sunset.
The popular opinion seems to be that Cronk will retire at season's end leaving the Maroons with an all-new halves pairing for next year. After his stunning debut in game three, Cameron Munster appears a shoe-in to wear the number six jersey for years to come, but who wears the seven isn't so clear. Daly Cherry-Evans, Michael Morgan, Ben Hunt, Anthony Milford, Corey Norman and Ash Taylor are all likely to come into the discussion. If one things for sure, Coach Kevin Walters certainly isn't short on options.
From the outside looking in, there appears every chance both Slater and Smith will go around again next year. After being on the sidelines and missing so much action prior to his stellar injury return this year, Slater would surely be looking to go again, whilst Captain Smith's man of the match performance in game three could convince him to lead the Maroons for another series and continue to help transition his state into their next era.
After missing this year's series through injury, Matt Scott and Greg Inglis are every chance to slot back into the Maroon's set-up along with Darius Boyd who missed the decider, leaving Coach Walters with some tough selection decisions once again next year.
This really is anyone's guess right now and a lot probably depends on whether Coach Laurie Daley stays in his post or someone new is at the helm. I wouldn't be expecting mass changes though. You don't get as close as the Blues did to clinching an Origin series in game two without having a lot going for the current squad. If they are to take the final steps and lift the shield next year, they have to focus on the areas outlined earlier in this column.
Aaron Woods (effort), Andrew Fifita (effort) and Wade Graham (discipline) are all players the Blues hierarchy should have had some frank conversations with in regards to where they must show signs of improvement before game one next year. Make no mistake, all three deserved their selection in the team this year. Woods had grown into one of the Blues real forward leaders, Fifita's game one performance was as dominant as any forward in the Origin arena and Graham with his skill-set and toughness is one of the most complete players in the game today. Despite all their strengths, something just has to give for the Blues mindset to click into ‘Origin gear' leaving the trio with plenty to prove.
If changes are to be made to the Blues pack, Jack De Belin was 18th man in all three games and appears next in line. Also in the frame are Melbourne Storm duo Jordan McLean and Dale Finucane who also spent time around the squad this year. Coming out of the Melbourne system where defensive effort is held in the highest of regard, the Storm duo could be just what the Blues need to help play out the 240 minutes of next year's series.
Announcing his retirement from the representative arena in the days following the decider, Brett Morris will leave at least one spot on the Blues flanks up for grabs. Not considered for game one this year through injury, both Josh Mansour and Tom Trbojevic will be firmly in the frame. Trbojevic in particular is looming as a must-pick somewhere in the 17 to join forces with Brother Jake who had a standout debut series this year.
Finally the age old question… The Blues just can't come out of an Origin series without the plethora of fans and critics alike asking… Will Mitchell Pearce wear the number seven next year?
Simple answer is, or at least should be, no.
There's no doubt in the world how good a footballer Pearce is at club level and the fact that he's still the best halfback in the state remains. But for whatever reason, he just can't convert that same level of play to the biggest of stages. Even if he gets picked again, he will never have as good an opportunity as he did in game two this year to ice a series for New South Wales. One-up in the series and ahead 16-6 going into the second half in front of his home fans in game two, it was tailor-made for him to drive the Blues home and if he couldn't do it then, chances are he never will.
The biggest problem for the Blues is, no one really being ready to assume the role. There does appear some hope on the horizon for Blues fans though.
In a timely performance for the Panthers last Friday night, Nathan Cleary reminded everyone he is the clear pick to be handed next opportunity at the halfback role with a stunning game including a hat-trick of tries. Whether he's thrust into the role next year or not remains to be seen.
Blues hierarchy would fare well not to let the stigma around their current halfback influence that decision though. Being handed his Origin debut in a game three decider at the tender age of 19 has often been to blame for Pearce's Origin career. Fact is, even at the age of 28 he's still not delivering in this arena.
Cleary has quickly forged a reputation for having a cool head on his shoulders. He will still only be 20 by the time game one rolls around next year, but if his footy continues to kick on in the next 12 months, age should be no barrier.
It's becoming increasingly likely by the day Laurie Daley won't be at the helm next year, whether he steps aside himself or is ultimately pushed from his post after just the one series win in five years.
With eighth immortal Andrew Johns ruling himself out of the equation to replace him on Sunday, long standing City coach Brad Fittler is the early favourite to replace Daley. Current assistant coach John Cartwright and former under 20's mentor Dean Pay are also among the leading contenders.
One name who hasn't been mentioned nearly enough yet - solely due to his club commitments - is Craig Bellamy.
Following the sustained run of success Queensland had with Mal Meninga as a Coach with no club commitments, New South Wales quickly adopted that same philosophy but it may be time for them to reconsider.
After admitting publicly recently he went about his previous stint as Blues coach in the wrong way, it would certainly be worth hearing his thoughts on how he'd approach the role second time around.
If the best coach in the game is willing to give it another a crack, surely the Blues would be crazy not to at least entertain the idea.
For the past two years I've concluded this column by stating just how big a gap in respect there appeared to be between the two state's sets of players. The constant trash talking pre-game and the continuous niggle throughout the matches highlighted my case. This year however, I thought it was only fair to conclude by stating how the gap has significantly narrowed. Whilst there will and should always be some level of animosity between the two states (Origin is what it is because of it), the series as a whole was played in a much greater competitive spirit and the footy was all the better for it. The speed of the games going to another level was a real highlight and the lack of players running in to get involved in pointless pushing and shoving was a major reason why.