Complacency will destroy Maroons
MAL Meninga's message to his troops to perform or perish following five straight State of Origin series wins shows the respect he has for new rival coach Ricky Stuart's ability.
It's also an indication he's privately concerned complacency, combined with the loss of strike weapons Greg Inglis, Justin Hodges and Israel Folau could just bring the Maroons juggernaut back to the field tonight.
With a big, aggressive and intimidating pack, NSW will try to smash through the ruck, especially with new fulltime coach Stuart selecting four forwards on his bench.
However waiting for them will be Sam Thaiday, Nate Myles, Ashley Harrison, Corey Parker and Jacob Lillyman, each capable of churning through 40-50 tackles if needed.
What Meninga has at his disposal that Stuart doesn't, is proven clutch players, what he calls his “spine”.
Fullback Billy Slater, five-eighth Darren Lockyer, halfback Johnathan Thurston, hooker Cameron Smith are world-class players in the key positions.
Working off the go forward of props Matt Scott and Petero Civoniceva, Meninga knows at some stage they'll get an opportunity to open up the game.
It may not be a case of where Queensland can win the game as much as where NSW could lose it.
Despite their best and most detailed preparation in years under Stuart, the Blues still look up against it again.
They've gambled heavily by leaving out danger men Jarryd Hayne and Jamal Idris while placing a lot of faith in an honest pack and relatively inexperienced halves combination of Mitchell Pearce and rookie five-eighth Jamie Soward, who the selectors didn't rate up to it last year.
Former Blues coach Graham Murray revealed this week how he would plan to beat the Maroons and it focussed on Queensland backline debutants Jharal Yow Yeh and Dane Nielson.
Isolate them with low cross-field kicks and get early ball to Blues gamebreakers Michael Jennings, Mark Gasnier, Akuila Uate and Brett Morris, Murray suggested.
First, though, the NSW forwards have to match the fearsome Queensland pack and Soward needs to get deep to employ his long kicking game.
Stuart described Soward's leadership role as crucial.
“He's actually helped me,” Stuart said of the 26-year-old.
“At training I sit down and talk to him about the game.
“I haven't talked to him about being a debutant. He's helped me construct the whole week.”
Soward's role as the link man among seven Dragons in the Blues 17 will be key.
The right edge of Wayne Bennett's side has been kept intact by Stuart, with Soward alongside centre Mark Gasnier and backrower Beau Scott.
Stuart credited the Dragons' influence for his side coming together faster than any representative side he's previously worked with.
“I think that helps,” Stuart said.
“Outside them being in good form ... it has helped creating that spirit, because under adversity and under fatigue you need mateship to get you through it and that's what we've got.
“They're as close as an NRL team.”
How the big men can absorb the collisions of Maroons juggernauts Thaiday, Civoniceva, Scott and Myles and then employ a St George Illawarra-inspired strangling defence will be crucial.
The Blues' work around the ruck in exposing Queensland's forwards will also be decisive.
Hooker Michael Ennis controls that area skilfully for his NRL club Canterbury and is the more creative of the Blues' two No.9s.
Ennis plays 80 minutes for the Bulldogs but it would be no surprise to see hardy Dragons benchman Dean Young start at hooker to absorb some of the early punishment. Ennis could then be injected to add some spark, while Young could be used as an interchange backrower.