This week we preview the State of Origin series by; analysing some of the selection mysteries, considering the impact of two missing superstars and wondering whether New South Wales should be such clear favourites to win it all.
We tackle some of the big talking points in the latest edition of NRL Real or Not.
Fittler and Slater playing mind games with No.14s
REAL: There have been a few surprises in both State of Origin squads ahead of the series opener in Sydney. Josh Addo-Carr being left out of the New South Wales squad and David Fifita suffering the same fate with Queensland were decisions that raised a few eyebrows, but the coaches weren't quite finished messing with our minds. Just when everyone thought they had worked out how the teams would take the field, Brad Fittler and Billy Slater threw a few more cats among the pigeons.
Penrith centre Stephen Crichton was handed the Blues No.14 jersey by Fittler, a number usually reserved for a versatile utility player who can cover any number of positions, should an injury occur. Jack Wighton, widely tipped for that role, has been handed a starting centre position. Nicho Hynes, the other leading candidate, missed out on the top 17. Could it be that Fittler is trying to protect Crichton from the opening onslaught of Origin, with Wighton still able to move to other positions if necessary? Crichton has been known to fill in at fullback for the Panthers as well.
In the Maroons camp, not to be outdone, Slater has handed his No.14 to Harry Grant, the obvious choice for starting hooker. Into the No.9 jersey goes Ben Hunt, Queensland's veteran utility player and most obvious No.14 candidate. Could it be as simple as seeing first whether Grant has fully recovered from the injury and illness that has plagued him of late? Hunt has been in good form at halfback for the Dragons and will no doubt handle the dummy-half role at Origin level as he has in the past.
Now all the speculation surrounds whether this is exactly how the teams will line up or whether both coaches will throw last-minute switches, hoping to catch their opponents off guard. It's all part of the cloak-and-dagger build-up to the eagerly anticipated pinnacle of rugby league.
- Darren Arthur
Missing Blues duo levels the playing field
REAL: It's hard to remember any centre pairing dominating at any level in the last few years as much as Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell did for NSW in 2021. Both are superstar fullbacks at club level, and they were given a license by Brad Fittler to follow the ball -- Trbojevic in a pure roving role and Mitchell popping up to put the finishing touches on attacking plays.
It paid huge dividends. The pair finished as the series' top try-scorers with four tries apiece. They also ranked equal first for line breaks, were both among the top five in tackle breaks, and ranked third and fourth for run metres (behind NSW fullback James Tedesco and winger Brian To'o).
It's the kind of impact that can't really be replaced -- even with the Blues picking three centres in their 17 for Origin I. Kotoni Staggs is a great strike weapon and strong one-on-one defender, Jack Wighton has done the job before and Stephen Crichton has been excellent for Penrith in recent seasons, but all three are likely to play more traditional roles when lining up in the centres.
Of course, even without Trbojevic and Mitchell the Blues have plenty of playmakers and metre-eaters -- the spine of Tedesco, Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Damien Cook is just about as good as it gets -- but the absence of that duo deprives NSW of one of their key strengths and suddenly the two teams look evenly matched. If anything, Queensland now have the edge in class and experience in the No.3 and 4 jerseys with proven Origin performers Valentine Holmes and Dane Gagai.
- Dominic Brock
Freddy's Blues will stroll to a sweep
NOT REAL: Brad Fittler timed his arrival as NSW coach perfectly, with the departures of Maroons greats Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater ending a period of Queensland dominance that had stretched from 2006 to 2017.
Fittler's Blues became instant favourites in 2018 and had the series wrapped up at the end of Game II, and they've now won three of the past four series. This year the Blues will host the first match in Sydney, having won the 2021 series despite playing all three matches in Queensland.
So that all points to a Blues sweep, right? Not so fast.
Clean sweeps are notoriously rare in State of Origin. Queensland did it only once in their record-breaking eight-year winning streak. NSW haven't done it since 2000 -- the year Ryan Girdler scored 32 points in a single game and Gorden Tallis was sent off for calling Bill Harrigan a cheat. Fittler captained the Blues in that series.
The other reason a sweep looks unlikely is that this appears to be the strongest Maroons line-up since the Smith-Cronk-Slater era. Queensland won the 2020 series with a less talented team -- featuring a back five with the likes of Corey Allan, Phillip Sami, Brenko Lee and Edrick Lee rather than Kalyn Ponga, Xavier Coates and Selwyn Cobbo. It will be a surprise if the 2022 version can't get at least one victory across the three games, and potentially an upset series win.
- Dominic Brock