From Cartwright being ruled out only hours after he was selected, to Cronk rolling his ankle, to Dugan being ruled out earlier today (Sun 29th) it's fair to say all of these hiccups would be costing both teams valuable preparation time. It is the side that handles these disruptions the best that will probably come out the victor in Wednesday night's game.
It might be a little early to speculate on a result given we are still three sleeps away and there is still a captains run to go and players are going down like flies, who knows who might be lining up on Wednesday night?. However by now the sides should have settled into their rhythm and they will have figured out a game plan. So let's take at look at what each teams approach will be and where the key for success might lie.
Probably could be the most affected by the disruptions, considering they are trying to form a new combination between Maloney and Reynolds and the fact that Dugan was in such good form leading in, and he is a much different player to Morris this probably throws a couple of their set plays out the window. The other combination that now needs to be formed is between Morris and either Mansour or Ferguson (depending on which edge they play). I only mention both because many thought Ferguson would pair with Dugan however the published side reads different.
As tough as it is to say (because Dugan is now an elite player), I think picking him in the centres was a mistake and Morris is a much better choice to contain Inglis in defence. The selectors were desperate to get Moylan into the side (and rightly so) but the shuffle meant originally that edge was going to be Maloney/Dugan/Ferguson in defence, trying to hold out Boyd/Inglis/Oates. Maloney leads the NRL in missed tackles and I think at their most honest both Dugan and Ferguson would admit defence isn't their strong suit. It could have been carnage out that side and Jackson would certainly have had a task on his hands holding that edge together. All of this could be why Daley made the switch in his published side to pair Dugan with Mansour. All that is null and void now as Morris coming in firms that up.
The Game Plan
NSW picked a very interesting team. Even though Daley said they would be playing conservatively the side he picked would tell you otherwise. And the word I would use for their game plan doesn't point to conservative but what it does point to is simple. They will be going for a simple game plan. Maloney/Reynolds/Ferguson/Jennings all have points in them. People speculate the game will be played up the middle from NSW as Daley has picked a very big pack of forwards. But the key here is to recognise what type of forwards they are. Yes they are big, but they are also mobile and most of them have ball playing ability. Fifita, Gallen and Tamou all have an excellent pair of hands and even though the game might be played up the middle, expect Moylan and Jennings to be sniffing around for an offload late in each half. If Fifita or Tamou can poke their heads through and get the ball to Jennings it's lights out.
Close to the line NSW will rely very heavily on Reynolds short kicking game. Darius Boyd plays differently to a lot of other fullbacks in that he doesn't hang back in the in-goal in a sweeper role like an Inglis or a Slater. Boyd plays up in the line as an extra man, and the benefit of that in defence is it makes it very hard for teams to go around the edge. But it means the team needs to be on their guard. NSW should be looking to put the ball in behind the line for points or repeat sets.
For their long kicking and in defence expect a lot of traffic to go Oates and O'neills way. It's Origin and it's just how it goes, debutants get a baptism under fire and it will be no different for QLDs outside backs. Finally expect a lot of traffic to go Thurston's way. Even though he has shown time and again every time he gets hit to the deck he gets up again, NSW will not stray from this game plan. With Beau Scott not picked for this game Jackson might take the enforcer reigns.
With Cronk still in doubt the only pressure this puts on QLD is Thurston losing quality time with his counterpart. And this close to the match QLD are probably already preparing with Thurston at No7. The downside, if you can call it one, is that QLD will start with Thurston and Morgan and bring Lillyman onto the bench, losing the utility player. Gillmeister confirmed via QLD camp today that DCE would not be brought in ('Cherry-Evans leaves QLD Camp', NRL.com, http://www.nrl.com/cherry-evans-leaves-qld-camp/tabid/10874/newsid/96428/default.aspx).
Thurston and Morgan won the competition last year and they play week in week out. Morgan would have played two wide on the right side anyway. The biggest thing QLD will lose is Cronk's game management ability. He is cool under pressure and has no qualms about taking an early field goal and protecting a small lead.
The Game Plan
Complete, complete, complete. Kick to the corners play for repeat sets. Wait for the big men to tire out and go up the middle late. It's a recipe that has worked for 10 years and it shouldn't stop now. Even though QLD have a new coach, he also assisted during Meaning's reign and there is no reason why they should't continue with a winning formula. If you don't see a Thaiday 'outside - inside' to either Boyd or Morgan in this series, well, hell might very well have frozen over.
I mentioned above the strengthening of NSW line with Morris coming in, however we will still see plenty of traffic go that way. Unlike Dugan, I think moving Inglis up into the front line is a brilliant move. He is so damaging close to the line and although Morris might have him handled, the pressure might get too much for Ferguson and if Inglis can draw Ferguson in off his edge Oates could be in for a dream debut. Likewise down that same side watch for Thurston to look for either a 'Cooper-esque' short ball to Guerra through Maloney, or turn the ball back inside to Scott if he can get the NSW defence convinced he is going to go wide to Inglis. Thurston will also play the waiting game. He will have no problems sending passes wide all game just to set NSW up for a short ball in the 70th minute. Finally for QLD, Corey Parker will be very important. NSW have a very big forward's and as they wear out the Parker offload could prove too much to handle for scrambling defence.
The last thing that comes into play is the ground itself. ANZ is a traditionally slippery surface, expect Reynolds and Smith to look for metres up the middle. It is hard to go wide as there is always a threat of being bundled into touch so tries might come mostly off kicks. I don't think the scoreline will be as low as in previous years. With limited interchange back in Origin and the pace the game is played at, expect points to come at the back end of each half.
This is a tough game to pick NSW will ride on emotion and will all be playing to send Gallen out a winner. QLD for the past decade have had (arguably) the best side ever assembled and Cronk or no Cronk if QLD show up to play and can complete their sets I don't see NSW getting over the top of them.
Then again Origin is a funny game. Emotion plays a big part. The players that can find something when nobody can will often decide the result. I expect this year to be no different.
My scoreline QLD 24-16.
Bring on Origin!
The NSW Blues V The QLD Maroons, Wednesday June 1st. Kick off 8.15pm (Local time). Check your television guides for coverage.
NSW: 1.Moylan 2.Ferguson 3.Jennings 4.Morris 5.Mansour 6.Maloney 7.Reynolds 8.Woods 9.Farah 10.Gallen (C) 11.Cordner 12.Jackson 13.Bird Interchange: Walker, Tamou, Klemmer, Fifita. Coach: Laurie Daley.
QLD: 1.Boyd 2.Oates 3.Inglis 4.O'Neill 5.Gagai 6.Thurston (Morgan) 7.Cronk (Thurston) 8. Scott 9. Smith 10;. Myles 11.Gillett 12.Thiaday 13.Parker Interchange: Morgan (Lillyman), Mcguire, Guerra, Papalii.