Anthony Milford’s form for the Raiders warrants selection for Queensland. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Renee McKay)
Budding champion Anthony Milford looms as the Maroons’ smoking gun to maintain their State of Origin series domination.
If the Storm’s doctors are correct, Billy Slater and Cam Smith will be out for three to four weeks, while halfback Cooper Cronk’s broken forearm will see him miss up to 12.
This triple whammy for the Storm and Queensland is magnified because all three play key spine positions, and are virtually impossible to replace.
Or are they?
Certainly the Storm is in trouble as they lack the Maroons’ depth. Injuries and suspensions have hit them so hard they have to play their fifth-choice halfback against the Cowboys on Saturday. With Cronk injured, Ben Hampton suspended, Cody Walker having broken down at training and Joel Romelo also injured, Ben Roberts will feed the scrums.
Maroon coach Mal Meninga is blessed he can replace Cronk with Daly Cherry-Evans, who looks destined to replace Johnathan Thurston as the best player in the world sooner than later. But good as DCE is, he has never played halfback for Queensland before and the players around him did not know what he was doing when he came on in Game 1, especially outside men Justin Hodges and Brent Tate.
It is virtually impossible for any first receiver to come into a team cold and expect fluency. Game 2 will be different.
Cam Smith is acknowledged as the best hooker of all time, but if he cannot prove the doctors wrong, he will be replaced by premiership-winning Rooster Jake Friend, who is an outstanding player and will relish the Origin pressure.
Mal has ticked off a new 7 and 9, so what about fullback if Billy cannot defy doctor’s orders like he did in the World Cup? The automatic solution, indeed the media choice, is to move Greg Inglis from centre to his favoured club position and bring in Will Chambers. But GI’s combination with Darius Boyd on the left is crucial for Queensland.
Queensland have just lost three key position players and to cause an upset in game 2 in Sydney and keep the series alive, they need something special, something extra special.
Enter Anthony Milford. He may only be 19, but already he is one of the game’s best players and he is at his best playing fullback. This would be a major call by Meninga and the selectors, but it would give the Maroons a starting 13 that would be very difficult to defend against. The Maroons have their backs to the wall and Milford is simply too good to ignore – they have to find a place for him somewhere, even if on the bench.
Game 1 was a wonderful gladiatorial contest and shares in rugby league have gone through the roof. The monumental effort for the NSW Blues to win away from home at deafening Suncoop Stadium was memorable and they deserve every plaudit assigned to them. They are now $ 1.45 to win their first series in nine years.
However, Queensland losing their on-field general and tactical kicker after nine minutes seems to have escaped the post-match coverage.
Were NSW lucky? Did the ref favour Queensland? Should NSW have won by a bigger margin than 12-8?
Those three questions are all debatable but here is a fact that is not questionable.
The Maroon calls and general organisation became a rabble once Cooper Cronk broke his arm. Queensland had an astonishing 36 more runs in the final 40 minutes than what NSW did and they could only manage a single try, on the left, the opposite side to DCE. The Maroon right side was in disarray and many opportunities Cronk would have converted into four pointers were missed.
In a nutshell, the Maroons would have won had Cronk not gone off.
This epic encounter finished two tries all and as the Maroons had 60 per cent of the possession in the second half, it is a fair expectation that Cronk’s experience with key players would have generated extra points.
Given the unplanned nature of DCE’s entry, it would have been more productive for Thurston to take control of not only his left side but the right as well, similar to what he does at the Cowboys. DCE should have been just used as a kicker and runner.
DCE was put in a near impossible position and there is no doubt we will see a much more proficient player in Game 2 when he has more time to hone his combinations. The bonus for the Maroons is that Cherry-Evans is a better all-round player than Cronk, capable of doing to the Blues what Jarryd Hayne did in Game 1. It will also allow the selectors to have another forward on the bench.
Anthony Milford should be in the 17 regardless of who is available. The gun is smoking!