If the Blues want to keep this year’s State of Origin series alive, Nathan Cleary and Brad Fittler’s big gamble will pay off.
Match day has arrived in the wild, wild west and by 10pm AEST the series could be over, with the Origin shield firmly in the hands of the Maroons.
But if Brad Fittler’s Blues has anything to say about it, the series is headed to a decider in Brisbane.
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For that to happen, NSW halfback Nathan Cleary must respond to the marker thrown by his Queensland rival, Cameron Munster, in Game I.
Fittler made a host of changes in hopes of repeating the turnaround his side produced in the same fixture Perth three years ago.
These are the burning questions heading into Game II.
Will Freddy’s Panthers’ gamble pay off?
Brad Fittler made seven changes to his team and five in his 17 after being outdone by the Maroons in Game I.
The ax fell on Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Tariq Sims, Kotoni Staggs and Ryan Matterson, while Jack Wighton is out with Covid.
Fittler has brought in Jake Trbojevic to start at prop Matt Burton in the centers, while Angus Crichton and Siosifa Talakai go to the bench and Api Koroisau has been promoted to starting hooker.
Trbojevic isn’t playing in his favored lock position, but he switched to prop for game two in 2019 when the Blues responded with an emphatic 38-6 win.
But the biggest bet is to have Damien Cook on the bench for Koroisau, as NSW look to replicate the one-two punch Queensland delivered with Ben Hunt and Harry Grant in the series opener.
“I know he will go out and do a good job and it’s my turn to support him when I can,” Cook said of Koroisau.
“He has great deception around the ruck. He plays with a lot of time and I have a feeling that he will manipulate the markers a lot and he will have combinations to start the game with Yo-ee (Isaah Yeo) and the halves too.”
Can Nathan Cleary react to the marker thrown by Cameron Munster?
It’s not often Nathan Cleary is outplayed, but was forced to watch – from the best seat in the house – a masterclass from Cameron Munster in Game I.
The Blues halfback simply couldn’t match the Maroon talisman who amassed more than triple Cleary’s runmeters (148) and tacklebreaks (7) (49m and two tacklbreaks).
Cleary was the target of the Maroons all night, who put relentless – and sometimes illegal – kick pressure on him in Sydney.
Munster has thrown down the gauntlet and Cleary must react if he wants to take Daly Cherry-Evans’ Kangaroos No. 7 jumper into a World Cup year.
“Every time the team loses I will take that personally and I definitely didn’t play well,” Cleary said after Game I.
“It’s a lesson. I can’t change it now, but I can change what I do leading to the next Origin.
“In Origin you have to grab your moments. I thought Cam and Daly were doing really well, so I have to do what they did.”
Does Matt Burton arrive as a 10-year-old Origin player?
The Bulldogs five-eighth has been chosen in the middle, but he will feel right at home and you can expect his bosom-left shoe to be used.
Burton was named the Dally M Center of the Year last season just days before winning a premiership with the Panthers in a number 4 jersey.
He, on the other hand, faces the Maroons with his former Penrith team-mate Stephen Crichton at center left after playing just 28 minutes off the bench in Game I.
“It has always been a dream of mine to put on that jersey. I’m just so excited to get the chance to do it,” Burton said.
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“Obviously there are a lot of Panthers players and we have previous combinations from last year.
Burton’s kicking game has been a hallmark of a Canterbury side that has come alive with consecutive wins for the first time in nearly three years.
The 22-year-old’s shoe could make a difference for the Blues in Perth.
“I’ll be happy to take a little pressure off me (Clary). If that’s what I have to do, I’m just happy to do anything for that team,” he said.
Will Siosifa Talakai reach the Origin level or become a one-hit wonder?
The Sharks backrower was a force of nature in the first 10 rounds of the competition.
In round 7, Talakai played the game of his life against Manly, which sparked the conversation that he was throwing himself into the Blues squad.
That night, he had 241 runs, 11 tackle busts, three offloads, three linebreaks, a linebreak assist, two try assists and two tries.
Talakai declined slightly after Magic Round, but Fittler has backed him up to Origin level and make an impact from the bench.
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Talakai can cover the front row, back row and center and gives Brad Fittler options if injuries strike.
The wrecking ball center has scored six tries in 13 games for the Sharks this season and his passing game has made him arguably the most improved player in the NRL.
Talakai is making the most of his second stint in the NRL after two years out of competition after being eliminated by Souths 2017.
Who will win the battle of the hard men? Liam Martin or Felise Kaufusi?
The Queensland press called Blues forward Liam Martin “a caterpillar” after a vision of unsportsmanlike conduct surfaced in Game I.
Martin said he liked the attention before Fox Sports veteran rugby reporter James Hooper lashed out at Maroons enforcer Felise Kaufusi.
“You just need to pit the Queensland Felise Kaufusi Match Judging Committee and the Judiciary against Martin’s to find out who the real bad guy is playing in State of Origin II Sunday night,” Hooper wrote.
“Kaufusi has been charged with nine separate offenses and banned for five weeks compared to Martin, who has been charged with three offenses and has been banned from a total of one game.
“Maroon attacker Kaufusi’s rap sheet makes for ugly reading – seven dangerous contact charges, including two chicken wings, a headbutt, a grapple and an assault on an opponent’s head.
The Blues backrower has only served one week on the sidelines, suspended for a dangerous throw, while his other two charges were opposing contact for assaulting an opponent’s head and dangerous contact with a kicker.
Can Jai Arrow repay the Maroons and fill Cotter’s vast void?
Cowboys workhorse Reuben Cotter proved an absolute revelation in his Maroons debut in Game 1.
Cotter was instrumental in playing 80 minutes in the middle and making 51 tackles, but he is out of Game II with a hamstring injury.
Jai Arrow was recalled for his first game since he was given a two-game suspension and a $35,000 fine last year for sneaking a woman into the Maroons team hotel.
“I don’t want to be defined by what happened last year, me as a person and as a player,” Arrow said.
“All I could do was determine what I was doing, that was just doing the right things and making sure I prepared myself as best I could.
“It was hard to watch Game Three in isolation from home, but I definitely moved on and Billy reiterated at the start of the year that I hadn’t done my sprint.
“Playing for Queensland is something close to my heart and now I’m looking forward to donning the Maroon jersey again.”
Will Josh Papalii play more than 20 minutes?
Maroons star Josh Papalii started Game I but sat on the bench after 15 minutes and only returned in the dying phase.
Breakout performances from Reuben Cotter and Patrick Carrigan meant Slater kept them both in the game at the expense of Papalii.
The Raiders wrecking ball said he was happy to spend all of Game II on the bench if it guaranteed a Queensland win.
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“Bill just said ‘go as fast as I can, as long as I can,’” Papalii told AAP.
“I did that for 15 and the last five or so; if that’s my role, that’s my role and I’m happy to sit on the bench the whole game if I have to.
“Those guys came up, took it to another level. It doesn’t bother me, the most important thing is that we win.”
Cotter (hamstring) has been replaced by Jai Arrow, who can play on the rim and center, but Papalii will likely be needed for an extended stint in Perth.
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Originally published as State of Origin Burning Questions: Fittler’s Huge Gamble, Cleary Answers the Key