Clear the Obstruction

State of Origin Game 3: Tactical Preview

In the tactical preview before Game 2 there were several concerns for New South Wales like their unclear middle forward rotation and their potentially shaky goal-line defence. None of it mattered, they thumped Queensland unlike almost any game in Origin history. New South Wales charged through Queensland for a total of 1945 run metres and a +837-metre differential. Their overwhelming ability to win territory and contact consistently positioned their attack within range while starving Queensland of any opportunity to exploit their defence. It was a trampling. By Kevin Walters own admission there was only one team mentally prepared to play in Game 2, which begs the question – where do we go from here?

The Motivation Effect

Motivation is fickle, but in a collision sport like Rugby League it’s also a vital component of any competitive team. It was clear to everyone including Queensland’s coaching staff that there was only one hungry, motivated team on the field for Game 2 which makes it increasingly difficult to project both teams moving forward.

It’s hard to have many take-aways from games where one team, for lack of a better phrase, doesn’t turn up. James Maloney was lauded for his performance in Game 2, but how much of his this was as a result of the impressive situation he found himself in? Maloney was in an ideal situation to allow him to succeed, playing behind a stampeding forward pack with little-to-no defensive workload.

Further to this – how much of the Blues domination was as a result of motivational factors? and how much was due to superiority and team-balance?

Up until Perth, Queensland had generated more metres per run in the last 5 consecutive State of Origin games, and more post-contact metres per run in 4 of their last 5 games. Queensland have displayed an ability to consistently win contact and territory over a longer period, and while the Blues performance was devastating it’s important to recognise it was only a 1 game sample and more likely to be an aberration than a repeatable event.

Moving towards Game 3 it’s unlikely Queensland will play anything like they did in Perth, it’s exceptionally rare for a team in State of Origin to dish-up such a lacklustre performance and especially not consecutively in a Game 3 decider. We experienced how New South Wales responded after being ridiculed for their selection decisions after a disappointing loss and now Queensland are facing a similar scenario after squandering a golden opportunity to wrap-up a series at a neutral venue. An optimist would look at Queensland as the team with the biggest potential for motivation in Game 3, their entire ethos is built around being the scrappy underdog backed into a corner, and that’s exactly where they find themselves.

Attacking Structure

Through unexpected injuries both sides are forced make changes to key positions, altering the way in which they structure their attack.

With Kalyn Ponga being ruled out, Queensland have reshuffled their backline, Cam Munster will play fullback and Corey Norman has been brought in to replace his regular position at five-eighth. They’ve also indicated they will start Moses Mbye at left centre, allowing Michael Morgan to resume his bench utility role.

There’s a lot to unpack with Queensland’s changes from a structural standpoint.

Cameron Munster playing fullback was always going to be the preferred direction after Ponga was not an option, and it does have its advantages. Despite being an above-average passer, Munster’s ball-running has always taken precedent and now unburdened from the structures of playing within the corridor of a five-eighth he has the freedom to roam both right and left edges.

The one downside to Munster playing at 6 is how he can at times struggle to facilitate shape on the edge – often the play dies when he takes possession as he holds the ball and tries to weave his way through the line. While this isn’t always bad, as demonstrated by Queensland’s left-side attack in Game 1 he can fail to position his outside men with attacking opportunities as he scouts for his own.

Playing at fullback allows Munster to be free from those responsibilities and his primary aim will be running, something at which he’s exceptional. Another advantage is his strength in breaking tackles, he’ll provide more punch from kick-returns and will become a target for any change-of-angle plays like an inside ball from Cherry-Evans. Kalyn Ponga is an exceptional player when given space, Cameron Munster can be exceptional without it and given how Queensland were suffocated in Game 2 they’ll need him to be.

The structural responsibilities will now fall on debutant Corey Norman. His role on the left-edge will be simple, facilitate shape and get the ball to Munster who will be running as the last-receiver from sweeps.

His job is simplistic in nature but given how NSW have pressured Queensland edges so far this series it’s no small task; if the pass from Hunt is slow – Norman will run out of space, if Norman isn’t deep enough – he’ll run out of space, if the attack isn’t straight enough and drifts across-field – he’ll run out of space. How Corey Norman structures their left-side attack will be crucial for Queensland, the Blues will rush his edge and if they’re able to contain the ball without it getting to Munster on the outside, they’ll go a long way to winning.

For the third game running the Blues will adopt a new attacking structure as Mitchell Pearce replaces Nathan Cleary. The balance between Maloney and Pearce will be fascinating to watch offensively for New South Wales. Mitchell Pearce is the most ball-dominant half in the NRL by a long distance, averaging 67.4 possessions per game, the next two are Chad Townsend (58.4) and Blake Green (56.8).

For Newcastle, Pearce controls almost every aspect of their game in attack as he drifts from right to left and back again in the course of a set. It’s telling how isolated and uninvolved Kalyn Ponga became in his brief stint at five-eighth playing outside Pearce for the Knights, which is now where Maloney finds himself. How Brad Fittler and Mitchell Pearce decide to play is one of the biggest unknowns for New South Wales; do they allow Pearce to play his natural style, or do they ask him to reduce his involvement and control one side of the field while Maloney steers the other.

James Maloney can play both roles, a corridor five-eighth or a dominant-half involved in shaping the attacking direction. The concern for New South Wales if they ask Pearce to take a step-back is whether he will find himself engaged enough to contribute, the concern if they ask Pearce to dominate the ball will be whether they starve Maloney of adequate possession.

The mental aspect of this balance will be fascinating – Pearce has been slammed in years past for his inability to take control during State of Origin, and ironically, not taking control might be what’s asked of him by the coaching staff.

The Forwards

In Game 1 Queensland’s forwards won the battle for contact and territory, generating more metres per run and post-contact metres per run. In Game 2, there was little opposition from Queensland as the Blues forwards steamrolled them. It’s not hyperbolic to suggest the winner of this battle will go a long way to a series victory on Wednesday.

New South Wales will roll into the game with only one change, David Klemmer replacing Tariq Sims. From all reports they’re going to start Klemmer at Prop alongside teammate Daniel Saifiti:

8. Saifiti

10. Klemmer

11. Cordner

12. Frizell

13. J Trbojevic

14. Finucane

15. Vaughan

16. Murray

17. Graham

How the Blues structure their forward rotation will once again be important. In Game 2 they had unanswered questions about the balance of their bench, and it never mattered. These questions are largely redundant heading to Sydney with the inclusion of Klemmer allowing them to have a true bench prop in Paul Vaughan.

Still their bench will take some juggling, how they include Murray and Finucane into the rotation will be interesting, after Game 2 it seems unlikely Jake Trbojevic will be interchanged, but with only 2 remaining middle-forward positions available how Fittler distributes minutes for them could become challenging. It’s also a different role for both players, both are high-workload starting locks and they’ll be asked to fill more of an impact forward roll on Wednesday. If Queensland manage to win contact they might find it difficult to generate territory while on the field, especially when they cycle through the bench with line-ups the may only include Trbojevic as a true prop option.

Queensland’s rotation has been structured so far this series, but in order to win they’ll be asking for an enormous effort from some unlikely characters.

8. Ofahengaue

10. Papalii

11. Kaufusi

12. Lowe

13. McGuire

15. Welch

16. Glasby

17. Fifita

Matt Gillett, one of the best defensive edges in the NRL has been ruled out with Ethan Lowe likely to take his place. Lowe struggled to crack a woeful Cowboys outfit last year and spent the first-half of this season with the Rabbitohs playing as a bench-middle. The Blues, and more specifically James Maloney will direct an almighty amount of traffic toward Lowe’s edge and he’ll need to stand up to keep Queensland in the game.

They’ll also need some outstanding efforts from their middle forwards to create enough territory; the bench trio of Christian Welch, Tim Glasby and David Fifita will need to keep Queensland’s forward pack rolling when Papalii and Ofahengaue are interchanged.

Defensively however the Queensland bench-middles will be well equipped, all three are mobile and rank as excellent defenders by defensive efficiency %. The Blues will once again focus on generating quick play the balls to give Damien Cook time and space to bounce from dummy-half, and the bench unit Queensland will deploy will be ideally suited for containing this tactic.

Prediction: New South Wales

This prediction was harder to make than originally planned. The Blues are rightly considered favourites, but this game is much, much closer than the consensus seems to think.

Despite the resounding victory for New South Wales in Perth, they still didn’t answer several key questions and in many ways the disparity in motivation between the sides glossed-over some of their flaws. Their goal-line defence was never tested for any amount of time, and if Queensland have territory it still could prove fatal. James Maloney will be defending a right-side sweep play with Cherry-Evans and Munster and his ability to cover or even slow Munster in a one-on-one situation is questionable. Their clunky middle-rotation wasn’t an issue in Game 2, and yet should they face opposition there’s still some lingering questions about the roles of some individuals.

There’s also the question of motivation. After the resounding victory in Perth it’s possible they have a lull as Queensland respond, when you back a team into a corner you have to be prepared for them to come-out fighting, and the Blues have a long history of being unable to handle that exact situation.

Ultimately though, New South Wales are a better team playing at home and while there are still some lingering issues they pale in the face of Queensland’s. The Maroons are integrating several new pieces including; a debuting five-eighth, a debuting edge back-rower and a fullback who doesn’t normally play fullback.

Queensland have a long proud history of overcoming adversity and a victory seems beyond their reach, which is exactly the position where they’ve played their best football. If the Blues treat this game as an extension of Game 2, it will be, if they treat this game as a victory parade, it will be, just not for them.