ANDREW JOHNS – NINEMSN COLUMN

State of Origin is less than a week away with both squads in camp preparing for the vital first game. Ricky Stuart has named the New South Wales side he feels can best stop Queensland’s record run, and as a Blues supporter I have to put my faith in him and get behind the team.

One thing I really like about this New South Wales side is the pace of the outside backs. If you lined up Brett Stewart, Jarryd Hayne, Akuila Uate, Josh Morris and Michael Jennings in a sprint down the length of the field, there aren’t too many in the game that could match it with any of them. Getting them into the clear and past the best player I have ever seen in fullback Billy Slater is the real challenge – but speed is the one thing every defender fears most.

Selecting Jennings in the centres has been a controversial choice. Many are questioning whether a player who can’t make it into his club’s first grade team will be up to the challenge of Origin football. Jennings proved last year that he is a genuine game breaker, more than capable of making his mark at the highest level. When he’s in the centres for Penrith he is the focal point for the opposition defence. Coaches know that a key to stopping the Panthers is to cut down the room Jennings needs to work in, so they’ll have several defenders aiming up on him and chopping him down. In Origin you can’t afford to focus on one player to that extent and Jennings will find himself one-on-one with his opponent a lot more.

Jennings and Hayne will both lift for State of Origin and I think it will benefit their club sides when they return. Every year the Origin stars return to their clubs playing a more confident brand of football and it often rubs off on their teammates. It may already be too late for Parramatta and Penrith to feature in this season’s finals, but fans of both clubs shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed to see their stars shining for New South Wales.

One player that has been in outstanding form for his club Manly is Anthony ‘Choc’ Watmough. Choc is a good mate of mine and he won’t mind me saying that he is an animal. He has done things on a football field at the highest level that defy belief. I was in the coaching box the year he was physically ill during an Origin match, but refused to come off. Instead he put his hand up for another hit-up and cut through the Queensland defence yet again. Craig Bellamy, who was New South Wales coach at the time, turned to me and said “this guy is incredible”.  I was surprised and disappointed for Choc that he was left out of the NSW side for Origin I, but once again you have to have faith in Stuart’s reasoning.

Watmough’s injury would have played a part in the decision and I’m sure that once he’s fully fit he’ll be back in that Blue jersey to play a part in this current series. He’s just too good a player and in great form to be left out completely.

No matter how long you stare at the Queensland line-up it is hard to spot any weaknesses. Not having a utility player on the bench could be seen as one, but Matt Gillett is a very talented guy who can fill a number of roles, allowing an on field shuffle if there are any injuries in vital positions.

People will talk of the size advantage the Maroons have with a two big starting props and a bench full of heavyweights. That is a strength that could easily be turned into a weakness during the heat of a State of Origin battle. If the Blues can maintain possession, complete their sets and turn the big blokes around, sharp ruck runners like Robbie Farah, Jamie Buhrer and the wingers Jarryd Hayne and Akuila Uate can take advantage of the big blokes. It might not be much, but it’s a good starting point against one of the best Origin sides on paper I have ever seen.

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