Lewis: Little No.9 looms large for Blues in Origin opener
QUEENSLAND must pull out all stops to prevent NSW superstar Damien Cook from raining on their parade at Suncorp Stadium, says Maroons legend Wally Lewis.
The 2019 State of Origin series kicks off at Brisbane's cauldron tonight, but Lewis believes it will be the Blues' No.9 putting the heat on the home side as the league's greatest rivals look to gain first blood.
The Rabbitohs' dynamic hooker is primed to test the Maroons with his foot speed and decision-making. He leads the NRL in try assists and is a clear No.1 for dummy half runs with 98 - 30 more than the next best, Cameron Smith.
"There's a little man in the No.9 jersey there who I think, if I was the Queensland coach, I would make sure the first call that went out would be one that was to not give him any opportunities whatsoever," Lewis told News Regional.
"He's a champion. He seems to produce his best game, game after game. And in a match of this importance that's something you (Queensland) can't (allow him to) do."
The 27-year-old enjoyed a breakout 2018 season when he made his Origin debut in Brad Fittler's new-look Blues outfit.
He was an instant success, as were the side.
"I remember when Damien Cook first came into first-grade footy ... there was something about him," said Lewis, now a commentator with Channel 9.
"You all start talking about some of the real strengths of his game, and the story came out about him being the Australian beach sprint champion or whatever it was - you could see exactly why he had that strength and that speed off the mark that was so impressive.
"That has gone ahead in leaps and bounds each year since. I can remember watching him create destruction for Queensland's marker defence (in last year's Origin series).
"Anyone that's lazy, they will be going to the headmaster's office to get the cuts.
"And he's just got great vision and judgment, and ability to create the most painful punishment for Queensland if they don't keep their eye on him 24/7."
Lewis is confident new Queensland skipper Daly Cherry-Evans will have the hosts focused.
The 30-year-old has overcome an ankle injury to lead his side for the first time.
The Manly Sea Eagle becomes the Maroons' 15th skipper and the fourth in five games, following the retirements of Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis and Billy Slater.
"There weren't too many people giving him much of a chance of overcoming the injury," Lewis said.
"I spoke to him the other day. He said, 'I was a bit concerned I might not be passed fit, but there was no way in the world I was going to gamble on this one. It's too tough a game'.
"I admire his decision."
Lewis, who captained Queensland in 30 of his 31 Origin games, said the Maroons looked to have come together well.
"Just by spending plenty of time in each other's company, which they managed to do, that's been the part that I've enjoyed," he said.
"Watching the friendship that has developed between these players, that was something that used to be so evident back in the '80s - it was something quite extraordinary.
"Someone asked me once, what was the most outstanding feature of the Queensland blokes ... we were the best of mates.
"And then get down to the job at hand, and that was producing the best on the night and making sure NSW weren't able to."
Five of the past six games at Suncorp Stadium have been won by Queensland, albeit NSW prevailed in the series' opener at the venue on the last two occasions it was held there - in 2014 and 2017.
The series will head to Perth for game two and Sydney for game three.
"To be playing the first game at home, that's worth its weight in gold," Lewis said. "Always has been, always will be.
"It will probably increase the determination levels of NSW, but if you asked them where they prefer to be playing it wouldn't be Suncorp Stadium."
Channel 9's coverage of Origin I will begin at 7pm. Kickoff is at 8.10pm