The Sin Bin - Marvin France's take on the NRL
The thing about loyalty is that it has to be earned. Queensland have banked more than their fair share of points in this department over the past six years.
It’s why 36-year-old, out-of-form prop Petero Civoniceva has been given the benefit of the doubt for next week’s opening State of Origin clash in Melbourne. Same too for wayward winger Darius Boyd and backer-rower Ashley Harrison. And why centre Justin Hodges, battling to overcome a foot injury, will be given until the last minute to prove his fitness.
But it’s easy to stay loyal to a champion team. New South Wales, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury.
Much to the frustration of Blues fans, coach Ricky Stuart has continued the scattergun selection approach of recent years, making a stunning nine changes from the team that lost Game III in Brisbane last year.
The uproar is understandable. Last season’s side took the series down to the wire - the closest it’s been in years - and there’s a strong argument to suggest that group may have been even better with a year’s experience under their belts.
The stats show the constant chopping and changing hasn’t worked, too, with NSW using an astonishing 73 players for only five victories since the Maroons took a stranglehold on the grudge match in 2006. In that same period, Queensland used just 44 players and didn’t lose a series.
Yet amid all the furore surrounding the Blues squad, there’s no escaping the fact last year’s team failed to get the job done. As did the players before them, the ones before them and so on. Having had a year to asses the situation, Stuart (pictured) believes he’s found a way to snap the drought. You can’t defend your way to victory against this Queensland team and his changes reflect that as he attempts to run Mal Meninga’s Maroon juggernaut off the park.
Some of Stuart’s selections carry a whiff of desperation - the coach has taken a massive gamble naming blockbusting back-rower Tony Williams, who won’t have played for nine weeks after being suspended, and inconsistent backline stars Jarryd Hayne and Michael Jennings.
But there’s no question this is a stronger Blues outfit and one capable of piling on points. Whether it’s enough to prevail in a straight shootout with Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Co remains to be seen.
Meninga opened the mind games on Monday by describing his team as “frail” following the departure of legendary skipper Darren Lockyer. But anyone who believes that has had one too many XXXX Golds.
Cooper Cronk has been groomed for years to replace Lockyer and with seven players who’ve tasted victory on 10 or more occasions, it’s clutching at straws to suggest they’ll be lacking in leadership.
This Maroons team is arguably the best in Origin history, however that won’t stop the ultra-determined Stuart from trawling through the NSW ranks until he finds a combination that can beat them. Asked if he would stick with the same team for Game II if his side lost next Wednesday, the coach said: “If they catch and pass, tackle, run well and play well in Origin football it is a pretty easy position for me to keep the same squad.”
He’s not wrong. Just ask Queensland.