State of Origin 2023 is almost underway! (Image: Queensland Maroons)

It’s halfway through the 2023 NRL season and as we are very close to a new year of one of the biggest rivalries in the game, The Inner Sanctum will break down everything about this year’s kick-off to the State of Origin series.

Sold-out, packed stadiums are expected across this year’s usually anticipated three-game series between the New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons.

The first twelve rounds of this season have been one of the most very competitive starts to the season the competition has ever seen, with unexpected results, injuries and individual players’ performances.

With Queensland beating NSW in the 2022 series 2-1 in the last two minutes with a game-winning long-distance try scored by Ben Hunt, the Blues are looking to strike first from the kick-off in Adelaide next Wednesday.

NSW Blues 

Here’s the reality

If we are being honest about the selections, the core Blues players have been struggling to find in form to start 2023. 

James Tedesco has not been the usual high-quality fullback that the NRL has seen him be, as the Roosters struggle to find a spot in the eight and find a go-to spine.

Tedesco’s game has been very well neutralised by the competition so far, with his usual support play and his off-ball duties as a transition support player not being utilised.

The six Penrith players selected have not found form until the week after losing to the Wests Tigers, with Cleary looking like the best player in the world recently, taking his game to the next level with a mix between his kicking game and his running game.

Against the firing Broncos squad, Cleary had a try, three goals, a field goal and over 200 running metres to win 15-4 at Suncorp Stadium on the road.

Jarome Luai’s legitimacy as a quality five-eighth has come into question, with fans and experts expecting Nicho Hynes to have been the five-eighth over him.

Facing the stacked Roosters side, Luai impressed everyone with a unique feel to the game, roaming around the field with his go-to hesitation running game and attacking the line at will.

With the losses of Villame Kikau and elected NSW dummy half Api Koriosau, Luai’s left edge has been in a decline, as the Panthers had to adjust to changes made for this season.

Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton have been adjusting to the right edge since the breakout combination of Taylan May and Izack Tago shuffled the Penrith left and right side play.

To’o continues to build the yardage game that has made him one of the best wingers in the competition, meanwhile, Crichton went into camp as the 18th man after the withdrawal of one of the best players this season Campbell Graham of the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

Isaah Yeo continues to play his ball playing lock forward role, although his game has changed drastically.

Yeo usually links with the halves when they shift the ball to either side, however, has now become a go-to player for strategic positioning, finding himself in the role of building yardage and territory as they enter the red zone of their opponents.

Liam Martin continues to prove himself as one of the hardest working back-rowers in the game, even with the setback of injuries, bringing the intensity and energy the Panthers have been needing to turn around their season since struggling to begin the first month of the 2023 season.

Tom Trbojevic had an outstanding performance against the Raiders, scoring a hat-trick and leading Manly to a 40-point performance, the Manly fullback finally looks confident with his body and feel for the game that was last seen in the historic 2021 Dally M season.

Trbojevic’s try in the left corner was a rare sighting, attacking on-ball against a Raiders defensive 2-on-1 right corner coverage that had enough space for the Eagles to capitalise in Canberra.

Jake Trbojevic, missed on being selected, as he suffered a calf injury putting him out for six weeks of the season.

Being known for his leadership and his role as the glue guy for the Blues, NSW head into game one without one of their most valuable players on the big stage.

Junior Paulo has had a quiet start to the season, with his Eels front rower in crime Reagan Campbell-Gillard dominating in 2023 much more before the hip drop tackle from Blues front-rower Payne Haas in the Eels-Broncos clash in Darwin putting him on the sidelines until round 18, missing Origin entirely.

Paulo’s ball-playing and attacking game in the red zone has kept the Eels in contention in games this season, as well as his experience against the Maroons making him a valuable selection, especially with the lack of front rower depth heading into this series.

Bulldogs fan favourite Josh Addo-Carr although being out for a month with a knee injury suffered in the Good Friday loss to the Rabbitohs, is back with the Blues after missing selection entirely last year.

Addo-Carr’s production in try scoring and yardage are down as per usual to start the regular season.

Against the Titans, the Bulldogs made a double-digit lead comeback, with Addo-Carr scoring a try in the 45th minute that sparked a 10-0 start in the first five minutes of the second half after being scoreless in the first forty.

In an intense matchup at home, Addo-Carr also had 88 running metres from nine runs, sparking 33 metres out of the dummy half spot as the Bulldogs looked to get out of their own half.

For the Blues, the backline is finally healthy for the first time since game two of 2021, the series where the Blues dominated the first two games and secured the series victory over the Maroons. 

It is important that they are healthy and engaged every minute of the game, and well adjusted to Billy Slater’s up-and-down, short side direct attacking structure.

Biggest Snubs

The biggest snub is Campbell Graham not being selected in the Blues side this year ahead of the first game of this series.

Originally named as the 18th man for the Blues as they were heading to camp, it was revealed he had been carrying a sternum injury for a while, with scans revealing the situation to make Brad Fittler and the selection team call in Stephen Crichton.

Already playing for the Australian Kangaroos before wearing the Blues jersey, Graham had become a player on everyone’s radar for this year’s run-in with Queensland, with some predicting he would start over Tom Trbojevic or Josh Addo-Carr.

In the 2022 season, Graham only scored five tries, and eight linebreaks, averaging 143 running metres totalling 2,869 metres for the year.

To start the first twelve games of this season, Graham already has 12 tries, 15 line breaks, and is already averaging one more metre than last season and has already obtained 1,730 total running metres.

It’s not really a snub as he was being selected in the process of selection. However, there is definitely an argument for the 23-year-old centre to have started game one because of his undeniable form.

Teammate Damien Cook was also not selected as the dummy half for the Blues for game one, instead having Api Koroisau as the starting dummy half.

The selectors have expressed one key detail into why they made this decision; playing quickly out of the play-the-ball.

Api’s biggest asset in his play style is the reason for the lack of an invitation to camp.

Cook has played a significant role in the success the Rabbitohs have had starting the way they have this season, showing his experience in the dummy half, with the running game and territorial attacking game that sparks the combinations with Cameron Murray, Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell.

Surprising selections

Bulldogs front-rower Tevita Pangai Junior was selected for the Blues after outclassing Queensland front-rower Tino Fa’asuamaleaui in the Bulldogs-Titans clash at Accor Stadium last Sunday afternoon.

Pangai Junior played 57 minutes, gaining 213 running metres on 19 runs, 74 post-contact metres and made 34 tackles.

The Bulldogs have had an injury-riddled season, including Tevita Pangai Junior, who missed some games, and this selection made by Brad Fittler is assumed to be a decision of tactics and strategy.

Named as a starter, expect Pangai Junior to be a pest, getting the Queensland front rowers off their game and creating an advantage when attacking the Maroons’ middle third of their defensive line. 

Cronulla Sharks Dally M Medalist halfback Nicho Hynes has been named on the bench to debut.

It’s not surprising he is playing, as he has played at a high level since becoming the franchise player the Sharks have needed since Paul Gallen’s retirement.

The surprise is that he will be on the bench in the seventeen, with speculations around the role he will be playing.

Worst-case scenario, James Tedesco suffers a concussion or injury and he goes into the fullback role as a utility player.

Another scenario, much more likely, is to enter as a playmaker in the middle of the field and or take over Api Koroisau as the dummy half, to attack out of the play the ball spot and take pressure off the Penrith playmakers with a kicking game and attacking the weakened Queensland edges.

Newcastle Knights back-rower Tyson Frizell returns to the Origin stage, playing a huge role in the yardage game for the club that has become the identity of their attack.

Defence and effort in an eighty-minute game have also kept Frizell one of the most consistent back rowers.

The surprise of his selection comes from the inconsistent form the Knights team has been, leaking a lot of points in an unpredictable fashion. 

Yet, it didn’t stop Fittler from picking him when injuries have come up at the worst time for the Blues.

The Blues gameplan

Last year, the Blues found success in the red zone territory and the pressure was taken from the halves in the kicking game. 

What was also missing in games one and three was the fight, with no instigators from the middle forwards to rattle the Queensland forward pack.

Fittler is ready to attack the Maroons and return to the Origin stage which has made the rivalry entertaining and meaningful since its establishment.

The selection of Tevita Pangai Junior to be this type of player for the first fifteen minutes is a high-risk, high-reward x-factor player that could start the series in an unbelievable fashion.

The star-studded backline should be expected to build natural yardage out of their half and play a unique free-flowing, feel for the game style that is hindered on the club level.

Brad Fittler has rhythmic players, not structured players, with the exception of the Penrith Panthers, who play under a structured system with coach Ivan Cleary.

State of Origin is a different game, bringing in club-level attacking and defensive structure was Fittler’s downfall last year, they struggled to counter the all-around system implemented by first-time coach Billy Slater.

The Blues must identify their key playmakers and role players, as their game plan can be simplified to the degree that the offence and defence still play at a higher quality.

On paper, this site is full of the best players in the league playing in almost their respective position.

Expect the game to rely on the dummy half players again and for the red zone play to be more calculated than last year, with the all-time Cameron Munster performance that proved how the feel of the game, unpredictable ‘pick apart the floating defensive line game’ is so crucial.

Cleary needs the ball in his hands, making the biggest decisions and taking over when he is feeling a spark on his side.

The transition, fast-break open space play that the backline created two seasons ago can be recreated in the current game.

James Tedesco played successfully as the guy everywhere around the field, support player and a running game on and off the ball that created unpredictable trails when he had the ball in his hands, along with Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell creating attack in the red zone, finishing or creating the pass to the open winger for points, and extending the range and territory on the attack with point scoring opportunities when the Queensland defence was on the back foot.

Where they need to win the most, however, is the battle in the middle or NSW end up back to the drawing board again heading to Suncorp Stadium for game two down in the series.

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Queensland Maroons

Whatever it takes to win

Billy Slater last year went with several debutants that proved to be the key difference in winning the series over the Blues in a highly entertaining fashion.

This season, the selection team went for the experience, what worked best and the fulfilment of the saying, the best ability is availability.’

Keeping to their role-playing structure, the Maroons are continuing the three playmakers with a creative spark from the dummy half and grit and grind up and down, set for set forward pack.

Sticking with Cameron Munster and Daly Cherry-Evans as the halves, and Ben Hunt and Harry Grant as the dummy halves, their offence can continue to be unpredictable and spark out of nowhere, patterns that can be found in games one and three of last year’s series in film tape.

The fullback controversy

Reece Walsh, who recently started playing for the Broncos after a year and a half at the Warriors struggling to become the unstructured star fullback, has become one of the most improved players in the competition picked over Newcastle Knights’ Kalyn Ponga for the number one jersey.

Projected squads had Ponga still playing in the State of Origin next week, with the biggest reason why he would be picked is that he is proven on the stage, who some people would argue he had a player of the series type three-game stretch in the Maroons jersey in their series win a year ago.

The next level unlocked for the Broncos was the unleashing next-level breakthrough of Walsh, who has opened up their set plays and ball control in their opponent’s half more exciting and fast than what we saw last year.

The Broncos to start the year are a top 4 team, after surprisingly missing the eight last season after starting a similar way in 2022.

Walsh has not only improved his running but also his playmaking game, making the play for his edge backline players easier and simpler, as the Broncos’ offensive spark ignites.

Kevin Walters has unlocked a unique running style for the fullback, which incorporates a flexible, yet slow mo type of hesitation move that extends his change of direction and the extra second window of opportunity to throw cut-out passes, attack open space and even create two-on-one scenarios that put the opposing fullback in a situation to leave his spot and rush Walsh and his teammates.

Being a top 5 player in the Dally M voting in the first 12 weeks, it does not come as a surprise that Walsh was selected.

What is surprising is that Ponga is playing for Newcastle this weekend, and he is a healthy available player that Queensland can use. 

With Ponga’s concussion and injury history, as well as his weak defensive ability playing in a different position, it is understandable with the eye test and historical context, that Reece Walsh gets to debut for the Maroons.

Passing down the torch 

Another massive call is not selecting 22-time Queensland Maroon player Dane Gagai, to instead bring in Dolphins fullback Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow in his spot.

From a strategy perspective, the Origin game is not played with the early ball, let the centre play his man and attack one on one or create a two-on-one from the space created with the pushed-down defensive line.

Slater’s offence is played vertically with the dime horizontally to the centre or winger when the ball spreads out or the short side becomes a fast break, outnumbering fast break action as the ball heads towards the Blues try line.

Hamiso has shown his ability to play centre as an x-factor that is able to play out the back of the key playmakers, being one of the best off-ball operators Queensland have at their disposal.

In brief minutes last year in games against the Cowboys, when the ball movement shifted to his edge, the space created by running good decoys and lead runners allowed him to attack the gaps in their opponent’s line and take off with the ball in his hands at a quick speed.

The selections from both sides have had coaches select a younger, faster, more durable player, with the pace of the game increasing exponentially and the trends of last year’s series had teams playing up and down for 20-30 minutes consecutively without a single stop.

When one door closes, another one opens

Ahead of the selections, Dolphins back-rower Felise Kaufusi has been suspended again for four weeks, leaving a starting spot to none other than David Fifita.

Fifita has been a heavily scrutinised player, and since having Kieran Foran on his inside, the Titans have played significantly better, unlocking a consistent, in-form player that has a high and ‘sky is the limit’ type of ceiling.

Fifita’s physical backrower play is unique to the NRL, at his size being able to move and pick up the pace the way he does, opens up the game for his teammates. 

Close to the line, Fifita is hard to stop, and if teams don’t defend him at a high level, they get punished really quickly.

With a great start to 2023 being the best back-rower in the competition, the suspension of the veteran gives Fifita a chance to open up the field and disrupt the defensive game of the Blues alongside Cameron Munster or Daly Cherry-Evans.

The Maroons gameplan

Expect the Maroons to run a similar offence to last year’s series, where the ball movement sparks from the spine, with a variable to have Fifita and Walsh out the back in pocket lanes to attack any open space or direct mismatches they can play in their favour.

The kicking game between Munster, Cherry-Evans and Hunt will be crucial to their field position and territory.

If Slater’s game plan is putting the NSW backline in the corner, expect Munster with his left boot to put Addo-Carr or James Tedesco in the corner in early tackle kicks and lead the chase to keep the Blues in their half.

Assuming they want to build field position over the course of the game, Daly Cherry-Evans will be the number one option, whether it is with a punt downfield, 40/20 attempts, cross-field kicks near the try-line, or even grubber kicks for repeat sets.

Ben Hunt could be a third-option kicker that shifts to number one if they want 40/20s out of the dummy half spot, especially if Tedesco is up in the line or lurking on the other side of the defensive line.

Reece Walsh will be the difference in this game and potentially even the series if they can take game one.

The out-the-back set pieces that were not designed last year can now be present with a player like Walsh that attacks the game out of the spine drawing in defenders to chase the players on the inside, moving away from the in-the-line, short-side plays.

The spark of Harry Grant is always going to be needed, especially when defenders are struggling to get up on their feet and back to the line, taking advantage of fatigued and backfoot defenders as transition pieces are being run by the Maroons.

Defensively, they need to expect an aggressive run at the line by Nathan Cleary. 

Game two last series saw a dominating performance by the Blues half-back, who put Queensland on the back foot really quickly, picking apart the shuffling inside the line of the Maroons’ defence.

The offensive flow created by Koroisau will need to be watched carefully, as he attacks in unpredictable patterns, especially in the red zone.

Keeping NSW in their half will be pivotally important, especially to keep Cleary’s kicking game to a minimum and minimise the backline who play a go-with-the-flow, feel for the game.

The 2023 State of Origin series starts on Wednesday, May 31 at 8:05 pm AEST at Adelaide Oval, live on Channel 9.

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