Sharks wrecking ball Siosifa Talakai is set to take on the role of game breaker for NSW in Wednesday night’s State of Origin decider as the Blues aim to overcome a hostile Queensland crowd to create history by clinching the series at Suncorp Stadium.
NSW have won just two deciders in Queensland since the first Origin series 40 years ago and only one Blues team has lost the opening match at home before winning the next two games away but coach Brad Fittler is confident that his men are ready for the challenge.
However, it is not only history that will be against them at Suncorp Stadium as the capacity 52,000 crowd will largely be cheering for a Maroons victory and with Queensland claiming underdogs status after star playmaker Cameron Munster was ruled out with COVID, an ambush is in the offing.
The Blues were already without backline superstars Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell for the series but lost Payne Haas, arguably the best prop in the game, for the series decider and then his replacement, Jordan McLean, tore a hamstring at training.
The loss of Haas is a huge hole to fill and McLean’s injury is expected to see Junior Paulo start in the front-row rather than come off the interchange as he did in Origin II in Perth.
Jacob Saifiti was named to start when the teams were submitted 24 hours before kick-off but Paulo has been training with the starting team since McLean's injury and a swap is expected at kick-off.
Paulo had an almost immediate impact after being sent into the fray 25 minutes into the match, with NSW trailing 6-2 and centre Matt Burton scored soon after on the back off a charging run by the Parramatta prop that earned a six-again call and an off-load in the same set.
Queensland second-rower Felise Kaufusi was sent to the sinbin as the Maroons tried to hang on and while the scoreline was only 14-12 when he returned, it blew out to 44-12 at fulltime.
Maroons forward Pat Carrigan and hooker Harry Grant had a similar impact on Origin I when they came off the interchange in the first half and shifted momentum in favour of Queensland, who won 16-10 at Accor Stadium.
If Paulo starts, as widely expected, Fittler will be looking for another of his interchange players to have a similar impact and Talakai shapes as that man after winning the nod ahead of NSW's best player in Origin I, Jack Wighton, for the bench utility role.
Match Highlights: Blues v Maroons
Talakai only played 17 minutes in his Origin debut in Perth but he is expected to have more involvement in the series decider, particularly with the changes to the NSW forward pack.
"It all depends how the game goes," Fittler said. "At the end of the day it was between Sifa and Jack so I think that tells you what sort of respect we have for Sifa."
Asked if Talakai was a player who could come off the interchange and turn the game, Fittler said: "Absolutely, that’s the plan. I think all of the bench know that is their job, if they can just change things up".
Despite the disruptions to NSW's preparations, which include Nicho Hynes being ruled out due to COVID and Jacob Saifiti having to be called back from Newcastle after McLean tore his hamstring, Fittler was in a confident mood on Tuesday.
A sold out Suncorp is the best thing ever
"Some team is going to come out and want it a bit more than the other. It needs to be us," Fittler said.
"It will be. I've seen the way they have trained - I just can't see any other result."
The Blues have won three of the four series under Fittler's coaching but they have fallen short each time they have had a shot at history - losing the 2020 decider at Suncorp Stadium and missing the opportunity for a clean-sweep last year.
Fittler - who played in 1994, along with assistant coach Paul McGregor and Blues staff member Paul Sironen - has bought other members of the history breaking team into camp, as well as players from the 2005 series.
“They’ve been winning as underdogs and winning as young [players]. Being the favourites and winning, and being the favourites and losing," Fittler said.
"Game I just gave us a really good indication of some things we don’t well, that is most probably one of them. We want to shake that tag.
"A lot of them were there [in 2020]. It's not as though we avoid it. Players know whether they have done well and whether they've done poorly and could've done better."
NSW captain James Tedesco said it would be among his greatest career achievements to lead the Blues to victory on Wednesday night.
"It's right up there, I think, especially to captain a Blues team to a winning decider at Suncorp. That's only happened twice," Tedesco said.
"Looking at those teams, there were special players in every one of those teams. It's a part of history I guess, but I don't think that's something I'll look back on until I've finished footy. For now, it's about getting the job done."