When the game one 2020 State of Origin sides were announced last Thursday afternoon it became quickly apparent that the two-time defending champion New South Wales Blues would be instantly installed as firm favourites.
Any side containing the likes of James Tedesco, Josh Addo-Carr, Nathan Cleary, Damien Cook, Boyd Cordner, Jake Trbojevic and Cameron Murray is clearly stacked with quality, experience and scoring potential. There is also a supporting cast that possesses the gifts required to take an Origin encounter by the scruff of the neck and produce a first up victory for the Blues.
The bookies took just seconds in confirming Brad Fittler’s squad as firm $1.37 favourites for the opening encounter of the traditional three match series. However, as impressive as the Blues appear, the betting agencies’ calculations are just as much based on exactly what is missing from the Maroons squad, as the quality and personnel available to their opposition.
Eight men will make their first Origin appearance for Queensland on Wednesday night. AJ Brimson, Xavier Coates, Brenko Lee and Phillip Sami occupy four of the positions in the back five; potentially the most inexperienced set of players in those slots to have ever entered an Origin encounter.
Elsewhere, veteran Jake Friend makes his debut at a level of football he probably never thought possible in the twilight of his career and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Lindsay Collins and Jayden Su’A all play their first representative games for Queensland.
On the surface, it is a stunning selection approach from coach Wayne Bennett, yet one not really that surprising considering the lack of depth in the playing group available to him and the inconsistent form of many Queenslanders during the 2020 NRL season.
In reality, New South Wales should be shaking in their boots. Bennett has pulled this trick on many occasions in the past; with Baby Bronco teams performing well above their weight during the tough and disjointed representative season.
In most recent memory, Bennett’s Origin affected Broncos steamrolled the Titans 34-0 in July of 2018; another in a long line of heroic efforts produced by Bennett coached teams.
With money reportedly flowing three to one in favour of the Blues, the opening encounter of the 2020 series looms as the banana skin of all banana skin games for them. No doubt Fittler’s most important mission will be to keep his playing group away from the dominant collective thinking that they are far superior in quality and that the series should play out in a comfortable 3-0 whitewash.
That dominance has seen New South Wales win three of the last four series’. Should the squad dare to venture into the dangerous waters of reading media opinion that appears to have already death knelled Queensland hopes, they could potentially convince themselves that the upcoming three matches will challenge them less than the last two editions of rugby leagues best rivalry.
If that does happen, the Blues will be creamed on Wednesday night; with a perfect storm like scenario existing for a stunning Maroon upset. Bennett is the master of the ambush and of producing a result in spite of media noise that convinces the rugby league public of something different.
If there is to be an ambush, Bennett has been and will always be the perfect architect for it.
It has not been plain sailing in preparation for the Blues, with James Tedesco under an injury cloud and Ryan Papenhuyzen now unavailable with a minor calf injury. With Manly star Tom Trbojevic unavailable, Clint Gutherson slots into the centres in what can only be described as something of a risky selection.
Gutherson has had a stellar year in the custodian role for the Eels, however, the positional challenge he takes on entering game one must be met should New South Wales hope to triumph.
Playing out wide in junior football is one thing, as are a handful of appearances there during his NRL career. Yet State of Origin history is littered with the dangers of playing men out of their regular positions and should Gutherson lose his bearings in the backline, criticism of Fittler’s selection will be prompt; particularly in a losing aftermath.
That reshuffle in the backline is far from ideal. However, the general consensus appears to be that the Blues are far too strong and experienced across the park for the Maroons to defy the bookies and claim game one in Adelaide.
What Queensland will do is throw a great deal of attacking options New South Wales’ way. Brimson, Sami, Lee and centre partner Dane Gagai rarely die wondering and creators Cameron Munster and Daly Cherry-Evans; knowing full well that there are plenty of points in the Blues’ squad, will realise that those points must be countered with attack and seem unlikely to be successfully blunted by stoic defence alone.
The kitchen sink will be thrown at the Blues’ defence yet heavy favouritism may well be the most challenging obstacle facing them.
Wayne Bennett knows that very well. He will use the language of ambush, of upset, of siege, of Queensland and I would not be at all surprised if Origin 1 is a much closer affair than many are predicting.