So, here we are, merely days before State of Origin kicks off in 2016.
Cooper Cronk of the Maroons celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during game one of the State of Origin series between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons last year. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
As usual, drama hasn’t been far away in the build up to the big game.
One of the big stories this week has been Queensland’s Cooper Cronk apparently slipping on a training cone and is now in real doubt with an ankle injury. The Blues camp aren’t buying it though. They’ll believe it when they see it.
And Cronk’s absence, if it comes to pass, will have an effect on both teams.
After all, when New South Wales broke the drought two years ago, Cronk was a non-factor in the first two games. The Melbourne Storm half broke his arm early in Game One and the Blues took enough advantage to win the opener.
Cronk was a mere spectator in Game Two and he could do nothing but watch the Blues win a dour contest in Sydney to claim the series for the first time in eight years.
Cronk returned for Game Three, a dead rubber, and helped Queensland march all over the Blues in an emphatic 32-8 win at Suncorp Stadium.
Last season, Cronk played the first and third games. The Maroons won both, including the record breaking 52-6 hammering in the deciding game at Suncorp Stadium.
In other words, when Cronk plays, the Maroons pretty much win.
And this is why the Blues aren’t buying what the cagey Maroons are selling. Cronk means too much to that team for a bung ankle to keep him from playing what may well be one of his last matches for Queensland. He, like many of the current Maroons super-squad, are staring Father Time in the eye begging for just one or two more campaigns.
And this campaign will be a big one for those players as this will be the first time that they won’t be coached by Origin Great Mal Meninga. Whether you believe Big Mal was the architect of this era of Maroons dominance or Michael Hagan is now irrelevant as neither are involved this series. They are now the Australian Kangaroos brain’s trust.
So it will be up to new coach Kevin Walters and his staff to get the best out of this team.
Will it be the same? Will Meninga’s absence affect the squad so much so that they fail in their quest for another Origin victory?
Blues supporters certainly hope so. But their own preparation hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing.
For a start, the Blues decided to name a squad in the hope the final make-up of the team to take the field would sort itself out. Players such as Josh Dugan came into camp under an injury cloud after sustaining what appeared to be a substantial elbow injury in the Dragons loss against Souths.
A few days later, apparently all was sweet. So Dugan’s shadow, Josh Morris, was allowed to return to Sydney to get ready for his Bulldogs to play the Raiders.
A couple of days after that, Dugan realised that his elbow was actually shot and he shouldn’t play.
So, after a few noses were put out of joint, Morris returned to the Blues fold.
Don’t kid yourself, the pressure is on New South Wales in this game.
After being on the receiving end of the worst flogging in Origin history in Game Three last year, the Blues must lift and win this first game to have a chance of winning back the Shield. They have two games in Sydney this time around and they have to make the most of it.
But the pressure is also on coach Laurie Daley and selector Bob Fulton. They have brought in a few new faces to try to turn the tide against what is arguably one of the greatest teams to have ever been assembled.
When trying to work out a winner, I think a lot depends on whether you believe the Maroon’s claims about Cronk or not. I think he will play, which means the Blues will really be up against it.
But in saying that, I think the home team can do the job.
The weather has really turned now and Sydney will be very dewy if not raining come Wednesday night. Adam Reynolds, making his Origin debut, should be able to get his kicking game in order and enable the Blues to play a field position game. The players Daley and Fulton have selected love a scrap, and I think this is what this game will turn into. It will be tough to play, but also tough to watch.
There won’t be a lot of free flowing play from any team and I think this gives the Blues a slight edge here.
NSW to win 14-10.