After five straight series defeats, New South Wales head into next week’s State of Origin opener on a mission.
The Blues pride is hurting after last year’s whitewash series defeat in which Queensland were far superior across the field. New South Wales were unable to compete with a well drilled Maroons side.
There were problems off the pitch too with Blues centre Timana Tahu storming out of the camp after assistant coach Andrew Johns, who later quit his post, was accused of making racist comments.
However, New South Wales head into the 2011 series with a renewed sense of belief.
The returning Ricky Stuart, who replaced Craig Bellamy as coach, has spoken openly about the need to replicate the model used by his former team mate and current Queensland coach Mal Meninga.
“I’d like to be able to replicate what Mal has done in regards to his team,” said Stuart, who played alongside Meninga at Canberra.
“Outside being a very good footy team, they’re a very happy and comfortable team and that comes back to the environment that Mal creates.”
Stuart said that sense of togetherness echoed their successful spell at the Raiders yet the former Australia coach is intelligent enough to know that team spirit alone does not win a State of Origin series.
The Maroons major advantage has been the quality of talent at their disposal and the consistency of their side. While New South Wales chopped and changed, Queensland were able to rely on their outstanding spine of Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer, Jonathon Thurston and Cameron Smith.
Recognising the need for New South Wales to develop their own core, Stuart has made some fairly drastic changes to the Blues line-up. He will hand Origin debuts to Josh Dugan, Akuila Uate, Jamie Soward, Jason King, Trent Merrin, Tim Mannah and Dean Young.
Stuart has also spoken of the importance of choosing the right type of player, believing that it takes a certain kind of person to handle the Origin cauldron. In naming the fiercely combative Paul Gallen as his captain, Stuart has made his clear that his side will be looking to take the initiative to Queensland.
There is much to like about the Blues team for game one. Dugan is an exceptional talent, Uate likewise while the forwards are unlikely to take a backwards step. Questions remain over the half back pairing of Soward and Mitchell Pearce but the former undoubtedly deserves his chance.
Whether this Blues side is capable of defeating Queensland on their patch remains to be seen. The Maroons are missing Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges but the trusted spine remains in place and, with a passionate crowd behind them, will take some beating.
For New South Wales this opening game is about redemption. Regardless of the end result, they must show the desire and pride that was missing in 2010.
State of Origin Game One
Wednesday, May 25 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
New South Wales: Josh Dugan, Brett Morris, Michael Jennings, Mark Gasnier, Akuila Uate, Jamie Soward, Mitchell Pearce, Jason King, Michael Ennis, Kade Snowden, Beau Scott, Greg Bird, Paul Gallen (Bench: Ben Creagh, Trent Merrin, Tim Mannah, Dean Young)
Coach: Ricky Stuart
Queensland: Billy Slater, Darius Boyd, Dane Nielsen, Willie Tonga, Jharal Yow Yeh, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston, Matthew Scott, Cameron Smith, Petero Civoniceva, Nate Myles, Sam Thaiday, Ashley Harrison (Bench: Cooper Cronk, Ben Hannant, Corey Parker, Jacob Lillyman)
Coach: Mal Meninga