The New South Wales Blues were humbled in the last State of Origin series despite being red-hot favourites but will go into the 2021 series tipped to take back the shield.
That challenge was made a lot tougher by Game 1 being moved to Townsville though thanks to the COVID outbreak in Melbourne. The first Origin in Townsville sold out in minutes, and the Blues can expect to run into an atmosphere equally as tough as the one created at Lang Park, where they have won just 20 out of 57 games. Add in the other two games played at QEII Stadium and the Blues have won just 20 out of 59 Origin games in the sunshine state. Still, the on-field stats all point to the Blues having picked an excellent, well-rounded team to tackle the Queenslanders.
The attacking might they have named across the park will be a major battle for the Maroons’ defence to deal with and it starts at the back, with two of the best fullbacks in the game named. James Tedesco will play in the number one, having put up seven tries and ten try assists in his last 12 Origins, and his club form has been similar with seven tries and eight try assists in 11 games this year. Also named is Tom Trbojevic, who has been solid for the Blues in the centres previously, scoring five tries in five games. It’s the rest of the spine that gives Brad Fittler’s side their fearsome attack though, with Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary to play in the halves, having guided the Panthers to the top of the table and 12 straight wins to start the season.
While Luai is on Origin debut and Cleary has no major Origin stats to write home about, they have combined for 26 try assists and eight tries across the first half of the season, which is miles ahead of anything the Maroons will be able to offer. In fact, Luai sits first for try assists, as he did last season, and Cleary is just two spots behind in third, showing their absolute dominance at the Panthers. They will only be more dangerous given the men lining up on the wings. Josh Addo-Carr and Panthers teammate Brian To’o have proven themselves as two of the best wingers in the competition, with Addo-Carr leading all try-scorers on 15.
He has a great knack of finding the try line at Origin level as well with eight tries in his nine Origins, while To’o has been instrumental in the Panthers rolling onto the front foot this season with more metres and post-contact metres than any other player in the NRL. The Blues backline is deadly, but that may all count for nothing if the forwards don’t do their job, although the stats certainly suggest they will do more than their share.
Cameron Murray playing out of position is a cause for concern, and the selection of Tariq Sims has raised some eyebrows given he only has 100 metres per game and five line breaks to go with a tackle efficiency of under 90%, but the Blues middle third is excellent. All of Daniel Saifiti, Jake Trbojevic and Isaah Yeo average north of 120 metres per game, with Saifiti leading the charge on 147, while he also sits ninth in the NRL for post-contact metres.
The impact of Payne Haas off the bench could also turn the tide, with the Broncos prop having 163 metres per game as well as 29 tackle busts in nine games. All in all, the Blues side looks excellent, and if they can handle the Townsville factor, then they will most certainly go into Game 1 as favourites… But haven’t we seen that script before?