Inside Sport - - HOT SHOT - –JamesSmith

To de­scribe rugby league’s an­nual State of Ori­gin se­ries as pedes­trian or pre­dictable in re­sponse to Queens­land’s ten vic­to­ries from the past 11 events would be sell­ing the se­ries well short. De­spite the Ma­roons’ cur­rent dom­i­nance, each year this in­ter­state bat­tle throws up more and more ques­tions, which be­come ob­ssessed over in the in­tense glare of the Ori­gin spot­light.

The abil­ity to gen­er­ate mass in­trigue in the great un­known is per­haps State of Ori­gin's great­est strength – not know­ing what magic and drama this an­nual statea­gainst-state smash-fest will pro­duce next is what keeps us all, no mat­ter our favourite flavour of sport, com­ing back. Here are five such un­knowns ahead of the 2017 State of Ori­gin se­ries, and some pos­si­ble an­swers …

This is Johnathan Thurston’s last year for the Ma­roons. If the Queens­lan­ders win the 2017 se­ries, will his age­ing team-mates Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk re­tire from Ori­gin along­side him?

It’s a very real pos­si­bil­ity for this quar­tet, who are all ap­proach­ing their mid-30s. At time of pub­li­ca­tion, Mel­bourne half­back Cronk was yet to com­mit to a Syd­ney club for 2018 and beyond af­ter an­nounc­ing he would be re­lo­cat­ing to the Har­bour City to be along­side his bet­ter half, TV pre­sen­ter Tara Rush­ton.

Re­tire­ment from the NRL would see Cronk bow out of Ori­gin as well, leav­ing Smith to steer the Ma­roon boat with­out the half combo he has worked with across a decade of dom­i­nance. In that event, you’d have to ques­tion Smith’s mo­ti­va­tion for play­ing on in Ori­gin. If, in­stead, he is look­ing for his foun­tain of youth, this would soon come in the form of an in­jec­tion of fresh, ea­ger play­ers into the Queens­land camp; there’s plenty bang­ing on the door of coach Kevvie Wal­ters’ of­fice.

A se­ries win could very well be the right time to bow out for an ag­ing and in­creas­ingly del­i­cate Billy Slater as well, free­ing him up for an­other Storm pre­mier­ship as­sault.

How will Paul Gallen’s ab­sence af­fect the New South Wales Blues go­ing for­ward?

As In­side Sport stated in our fea­ture on Gallen last year, the Cronulla Sharks’ pre­mier­ship-win­ner hasn’t been New South Wales’ best or most skilled player over the years, but he has been their most in­flu­en­tial. Even just pulling on a jersey along­side such a de­ter­mined com­peti­tor would have added a few feet at least to the spir­i­tual stature of his team-mates.

But now that he’s gone, who will step up and be the new Gal, as it were? The Blues re­ally don’t have an­other hard­man quite like him to call on. Wade Gra­ham is full of run­ning and pas­sion, Josh Jack­son is full of in­tent, Tyson Frizell is pumped up but still young, while Boyd Cord­ner has been ear­marked as a pos­si­ble favourite to re­place Gallen as cap­tain for his own lead­er­ship qual­i­ties. But is he inspiratio­nal enough to lead the Blues to a se­ries win?

Are more and more peo­ple los­ing in­ter­est in State of Ori­gin be­cause the Queens­land Ma­roons just keep win­ning?

Ul­ti­mate proof that the con­cept is far from stale or strug­gling in the in­ter­est stakes can be found in the sky­rock­et­ing fig­ures gen­er­ated by Ori­gin ticket sales and tele­vi­sion rat­ings in re­cent times. Last year, 193,805 tick­ets were sold across the three matches, a Sun­corp Sta­dium Ma­roons home game flanked by two matches at the Syd­ney Olympic Sta­dium. That 61,261 New South Wales fans turned up to game three, a dead rub­ber, af­ter their team had al­ready been beaten, must rep­re­sent some kind of mile­stone of com­mit­ment to a team on the re­ceiv­ing end so many times.

Mean­while, on the box, in­ter­est in the con­cept from liv­ing rooms and pubs has never been greater. Game one of the 2016 State of Ori­gin se­ries smashed all viewer records, with some four mil­lion peo­ple tuning in around the coun­try to watch Queens­land down New South Wales 6-4.

Chan­nel Nine’s cov­er­age blitzed the night’s view­ing, with the match it­self record­ing the high­est au­di­ence fig­ure for any State of Ori­gin match since the com­pe­ti­tion be­gan. At its peak that night, 4.423 mil­lion view­ers had tuned in (tak­ing into ac­count city and re­gional view­ers), while it av­er­aged 3.951 mil­lion view­ers across the tele­cast.

Is New South Wales' lead­er­ship bro­ken? Fur­ther, have the Blues lost their spirit and pride en­tirely?

We put this ques­tion to their coach Lau­rie Da­ley at the end of last year. Af­ter his tri­umph with the Blues in 2014, Loz is fac­ing a three­p­eat of se­ries de­feats (that crept up quickly, hey?) Da­ley re­sponded to our query with: “I’ve al­ways said peo­ple are en­ti­tled to their opin­ion, but you’d like it to be at least in­formed. You’d also like sup­port, but in today’s en­vi­ron­ment most of the time so­cial me­dia is used in a neg­a­tive way; peo­ple want to re­ally put the boot in. We can’t help that or stop peo­ple do­ing that, but you’d like to think that, yeah, we’re all dis­ap­pointed, but sup­port the guys be­cause, yes, we didn’t win but geez, you can’t be crit­i­cal of the guys’ ef­fort and how they went about it.” Sounds like the Blues’ spirit is alive and well to us. Per­haps …

How many of the emerg­ing play­ers who Kevvie Wal­ters banned from the 2016 se­ries for break­ing cur­few will bounce back and make their Ori­gin de­buts this year?

To re­cap, back in Fe­bru­ary last year, a band of would-be Ori­gin re­place­ments – An­thony Mil­ford, Jar­rod Wal­lace, Ben Hunt, Dy­lan Napa, Edrick Lee, Chris Grevs­muhl, Valen­tine Holmes and Cameron Mun­ster – was sus­pended from the Queens­land squad for a year for break­ing cur­few at an emerg­ing Ori­gin camp. At the time, this looked like good news for the Blues.

A year and a bit on though, and the re­al­ity is look­ing quite dif­fer­ent. Pos­si­bly the best way to fire up a young Ma­roons prospect is to tell him he can’t play State of Ori­gin foot­ball. The blow­back is go­ing to be se­vere … and NSW looks set to be on the re­ceiv­ing end of it. You would tip that Mil­ford, along with Michael Mor­gan, is only a Thurston or Cronk in­jury away from be­ing named on the bench. Napa, the hard-hit­ting young Rooster, is the next Nate Myles, while fly­ing winger Valen­tine Holmes is an Aussie rep but is yet to make his Ori­gin de­but. Only a mat­ter of time for most of this crew ...

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