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Maroons feel stronger after emerging from ‘nightmare scenario’

Billy Slater has emerged from a rookie coach’s “nightmare scenario” to put Queensland on the cusp of a State of Origin series win.

It’s a series that has risen above the usual war of words into a game of physical chess.

The Maroons can seal the series in Perth on Sunday at Optus Stadium after their upset 16-10 win over NSW in Sydney earlier this month.

That victory came despite injuries to winger Xavier Coates and the brief absence of bench backrower Jeremiah Nanai, forcing a dramatic mid-match reshuffle of the Queensland backline.

The quick fixes stuck before their underrated bench and superiority around the ruck tore the game open.

In Slater and his support staff of Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Nate Myles, Greg Inglis, Josh Hannay and Allan Langer, the Maroons have the embodiment of Queensland spirit.

That’s certainly resonated on the squad, but Valentine Holmes says it is not why they won in Sydney.

“I went to the wing, Capes (Kurt Capewell) into the centres and Fus (Felise Kaufusi) on an edge he doesn’t normally play,” he told AAP.

Valentine Holmes

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“We had a lot of changes and that’s a credit to Billy for the way he handled it (as) a first-time coach, seeing that happen is like a nightmare scenario and we just carried on.

“You could (feel the calm) and see it out there when the boys came on.

“You look around the coaching staff we have and the players – you can’t not be confident with our game plan.”

The result, decided by a late try-saving tackle from Kalyn Ponga, forced a staggering seven changes and strategic overhaul from Blues coach Brad Fittler.

“That’ll be a tactical change, going in with two hookers,” Blues coach Fittler said of the decision to elevate Api Koroisau into the side with Damien Cook.

“We went into the first game thinking a certain way about how the game would go and what we could do, but it didn’t happen.”

Including recent departure Matt Burton, who will start in the centres, Penrith will have a record eight starters as Fittler responds to the lowest NSW Origin score since game three in 2017.

Slater will need another plan too, with his Sydney trump card, 80-minute lock Reuben Cotter, injured and replaced by Jai Arrow in a re-shuffled pack.

“I don’t know what the thought process is with that,” Holmes said of the Blues’ changes.

“They played well and it was only six points in it.

“I am expecting them to play a lot faster through the middle with another hooker on the bench though … looking for that speed around the ruck, so that’ll a be massive focus again.”


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