RICKY STUART believes he has a better team than he did the last time he ventured north of the border in his failed bid to bring down the Queensland empire.
For the first time in a long time, NSW’s mission impossible seems more like mission improbable, which is as good as it has been for more than half a decade. Stuart has played and coached in NSW’s only two triumphant series deciders at Suncorp Stadium, so he knows how hard it is to leave the cauldron with fond memories, let alone a trophy as a memento.
Only eight Blues players from last year’s series decider have been given a shot at redemption. Jarryd Hayne, Brett Morris, Mitchell Pearce, Paul Gallen, Greg Bird, Anthony Watmough, Luke Lewis and Ben Creagh are the only survivors from last year’s heartache, failing to gatecrash Darren Lockyer’s farewell show.
Yet, despite the huge turnover of players, Stuart believes this team is better for the experience, confident in the ”tough” brand of players he’s put his faith in to defy the odds and end the Maroons’ stranglehold on rugby league’s showcase event.
”It’s hard going up there and playing against this mob because it’s a tough environment, but we’ve got tough people,” Stuart said yesterday before his team’s final training session in Sydney. ”From day one I said we were going to pick a tough team and that’s what I know they are – they’re very tough.
”We had a fairly inexperienced football team last year, we’re a little bit more experienced this year and that’s going to keep on [growing]. I see this group here as a group that have the ability to be a big part of this Origin series over the coming two or three years and that’s vital.”
There is little difference in Origin experience between the two teams Stuart has chosen for the past two deciders. Last year’s team had 105 games of Origin experience under their belt before the decider, while this year’s team have played 110 games between them.
But Stuart has chosen several big-game players who have done the job on the big stage in the past, with six premiership winners from the past two NRL competitions in his side.
He’s expecting a hostile environment at Suncorp Stadium on Wednesday night but insists it’s no excuse if the Blues are serious about turning the tide. ”We’ve got to get used to that type of environment,” Stuart said. ”If we want to be successful, we have to show that we can win on any stage, in any scenario, in any type of environment. We’ll slowly get that. We’re slowly getting that experience.”
With Lockyer having hung up his boots, Ashley Harrison and Billy Slater out injured, Sam Thaiday carrying a shoulder problem and stalwart Petero Civoniceva admitting he isn’t having the impact on games he once did, there is a suggestion the Maroons are ripe for the picking.
But such talk isn’t mentioned inside the NSW camp. ”That hasn’t come from us,” Stuart said. ”That’s come from Queensland telling themselves that. We don’t believe any of that. They’re a wonderful football team and they’re going to have everything go their way up there. ”We’ve practised all week … We’ll be ready for it, whether we’re going to be good enough is another thing.”
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