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Loyalty or lunacy? Slater makes big gamble as Maroons bank on tried and true mantra for series decider

When a team gets beaten by 32 points in an Origin game, you should probably look to make changes.

After NSW lost game one by six, they made seven changes for Origin II.

But the Maroons are different. Despite getting pumped 44-12 in Perth, coach Billy Slater has made the biggest gamble of his brief coaching career by doing nothing at all … nothing at all.

The only change to his team for game three next Wednesday is the enforced one brought about by Felise Kaufusi’s family emergency where he’s had to make a quick trip to the United States to be with his father.

Jeremiah Nanai comes into the starting side at second row with another Cowboys young gun, Tom Gilbert, getting a call-up to the interchange.

That’s it.

Jeremiah Nanai scores. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Everyone else who was on the receiving end of the Perthquake at Optus Stadium will get a chance to redeem themselves.

Why? Because that’s how Queensland have always done it.

There was a similar situation just two years ago, less than that actually as the series was played in November.

Queensland, after winning the first match in Adelaide 18-14, were then thumped by the Blues in Origin II in Sydney 34-10.

Maroons coach Wayne Bennett largely stuck by his troops but he did make a couple of unforced changes, dropping Ben Hunt and Phil Sami for Harry Grant and Brenko Lee while also switching Valentine Holmes from fullback to bring in Corey Allan.

They responded with a 20-14 boilover win to steal the shield back from NSW, denying the Blues a rare series hat-trick in one of the biggest upsets in Origin history.

Tom Gilbert

Tom Gilbert lining up for the Cowboys. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Slater, with just two games under his belt when it comes to senior coaching experience, is running a huge risk with some of the players he has kept in his line-up.

Cowboys winger Murray Taulagi looked overawed on debut in Perth and was particularly troubled by Matt Burton’s towering bombs. He can expect plenty more to come his way at Suncorp Stadium.

Maroons veteran Josh Papalii was again given limited minutes – just 26 – and his front-row partner Lindsay Collins also failed to put a dent in the NSW pack.

Brisbane’s Patrick Carrigan was again among Queensland’s best from the bench and surely must be a strong chance of being elevated to the starting side by the time kick-off rolls around next Wednesday. 

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

The other big question mark for Slater revolves around the fitness of star five-eighth Cameron Munster.

His Storm coach, Craig Bellamy, said just a few days ago that Munster was struggling to even pass a ball due to the shoulder injury he suffered in Origin II.

Munster will no doubt do everything in his power to be right for the series decider but Queensland last year paid a heavy price for carrying injured players into matches.

The Munster gamble is one Slater has to take given he’s the most important player in the team but it has the potential to backfire big time.

They will have Ben Hunt as an insurance policy if Munster goes into the game busted and is forced off but the Maroons need their alpha male leading from the front, like he did in the first match, as they don’t have anyone else apart from fullback Kalyn Ponga and back-up hooker Harry Grant with a similar ability to create something out of nothing.

“I think the back end of the game wasn’t good,” Slater said on Monday morning when asked what disappointed him the most in Origin II.

“But we put so much effort into the first 60 minutes that we were just out of petrol. It’s really hard to play a game, let alone a game of State of Origin when you’re down a man for 10 minutes.

“I was really proud of the way that the boys put in that effort for the first 60 minutes but there were areas there where we just didn’t get our jobs done.

“That’s what we need to sharpen up on. I wouldn’t say I was overly disappointed in it but we just need to get our jobs done better.”

After NSW coach Brad Fittler has had a couple of meetings with referees’ boss Jared Maxwell to protest about decisions and Queensland tactics, Slater was asked if he would do likewise but he deadbatted it away.

“They’ve got their job, I’ll do my job,” he said.

Kaufusi’s absence is will be difficult to replace. Apart from the not quite 10 minutes he controversially spent in the sin bin in game two, he has played every minute of the series – the only forward on either side who hasn’t been interchanged.

Felise Kaufusi scores for Queensland

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Nanai has played just 36 and 29 minutes in his two appearances, Jai Arrow was only given 25 in Perth and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui is averaging just 45.5 minutes across the two games.

Slater is going to have to find someone who can go the distance, like Reuben Cotter did so memorably in game one.

Necessity being the mother of invention, Queensland’s much shallower talent pool has meant they have rarely made mass changes on the back of a heavy defeat from the early days in the 1980s right through to the modern era.

They went into this series given little chance to win the shield back from NSW so in some ways, Slater is in a nothing to lose situation in that if they go down 2-1 in the series, that’s a commendable effort.

But he doesn’t think that way. An ultimate competitors in his playing days for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia, he’s in it to win it and he’s backing the squad which overcame the odds in game one but fell well short in game two.

It’s now up to the players to repay that faith.

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