ANDREW JOHNS – NINE MSN COLUMN

Greg Inglis is currently one of the best fullbacks in the NRL, but he won’t get a look in for the Queensland No1 jersey because in Billy Slater they have the best player I have ever seen. State of Origin is on the horizon and as a New South Wales supporter I must admit I’m getting a bit nervous about how things are panning out. Queensland’s star players are all showing career-best form as the time approaches for them to pull on their maroon jerseys. Inglis was in devastating touch against Cronulla on Monday night and seems to be getting better in the fullback position every week. Slater is never out of form, but even he has lifted a notch in recent weeks and looks ready to tear the Blues apart.

Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, Slater’s partners in crime at the Storm and in the Queensland side, have also been steadily improving as the season has progressed. The advantage of having three players from the same club side forming the spine of a representative team is enormous. When those three club players happen to be among the best in the business at what they do, the advantage becomes almost impossible to overcome. I still give the Blues a very good shot at winning the series this year, but they will have to perform to their absolute best and have a bit of luck go their way.

Johnathan Thurston started the season a little sluggishly as he adjusted to the Cowboys No6 jersey. If Ricky Stuart can devise a plan to combat the Storm trio, Queensland has Thurston up their sleeve to cause a whole new nightmare. Recently he has been back to his best and was causing St George Illawarra all sorts of trouble last Friday until Dragon’s forward Matt Prior took him out of the game.

Prior’s hit was ugly and there was very little doubt that Thurston was genuinely stunned by the contact, but it’s not always so blatant and the damage done not always so clear cut. The simplest glancing blow to the right part of the head can knock a player out, but replays might still make it look like he is taking a dive. I’m sure these days there are plenty of times where a player isn’t hurt by contact to his head, but knows the best result for his team is to stay down and let the video referee watch a couple of replays.

Climbing to your feet even though you might be groggy from a hit to the head might gain you respect from your teammates and the opposition, but if your team misses out on an opportunity to score because of your toughness it’s doubtful how happy the coach and fans will be. I agree with Paul Gallen that if a tackle is deemed to be alright by the four officials on the field, then it should be play-on regardless of what the replays show. If a player gets away with belting a bloke during a game, then the match review panel will catch up with him later and suspend him accordingly. The current system invites ridicule of a game which has been built on a reputation of toughness.

One man who personifies the toughness of rugby league is Queensland prop Petero Civoniceva. Playing in the engine room for as long as he has at the highest level is testament to what a great player he has been. Petero announced he would retire at the end of this season and when he does he’ll long be remembered as one of the nicest blokes to ever play rugby league and one of the game’s best ever prop forwards. Unfortunately for New South Wales, Queensland will want to send the big man out of State of Origin a winner, as they did with Darren Lockyer last year. He is still playing as well as ever and making the hard yards down the middle of the field and he’ll once again be a handful for the Blues.

One of the men who will have to stop Petero is Blues captain Paul Gallen. Coach Ricky Stuart and the whole of New South Wales were relieved to hear Gallen’s knee injury isn’t as serious as first feared. Gallen may miss this weekend’s match against Melbourne Storm and frankly the Sharks can’t beat them without him. There is only one superman in the Shire and without him the Sharks aren’t half the team they are when he is out there making 40 hit-ups and 60 tackles.

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