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Blues v Maroons: Seven debutants ready to shine in Origin opener

Blues coach Brad Fittler has handed debuts to Kotoni Staggs, Ryan Matterson and Stephen Crichton while Jeremiah Nanai, Reuben Cotter, Selwyn Cobbo and Patrick Carrigan will all get their first taste of Origin footy for Queensland.

Having crossed paths as players in 2004 - Fittler's last Origin series and Slater's first - these two iconic figures now go head-to-head as mentors, looking to strike the first blow in front of 80,000 fans at Accor Stadium.

After taking the reins from Laurie Daley in 2018, Fittler has won three of four series, ushering in a new era of success for the Blues after more than a decade of Queensland dominance.

Slater will no doubt be looking for a similar storyline to follow his arrival, taking the reins after a disappointing series in 2021 that saw the Maroons comfortably beaten on home turf in the opening two games before clinching game three in Townsville.

Yet despite their success away from New South Wales last year, the Blues simply must get off to a winning start on home turf this year.

Since Origin became a three-game series in 1982, only once has a team come back from 1-0 down to win the series when they don't have another game at home after the opener — as is the case for the Blues this year, with Game Two to be played in Perth (Optus Stadium) and Game Three in Brisbane (Suncorp Stadium).

The Blues did manage that feat in 1994, when Mark Coyne's miracle try sunk them in Sydney before they came back to level the series in Melbourne and win the decider in Brisbane, but they'll be hoping for a strong start to the series this time around to avoid history needing to repeat itself in 2022.

Team News
New South Wales

James Tedesco will captain a Blues side which includes debutants Ryan Matterson, Kotoni Staggs and Stephen Crichton in the 17 and three more (Joseph Suaalii, Nicho Hynes and Jacob Saifiti) in the extended squad. Suaalii and Saifiti were cut on Tuesday when the squad was cut to 19 and Hynes is 18th man. Tyson Frizell remains in the squad as reserve.

Staggs will partner Canberra's Jack Wighton in a new-look centre pairing while Roosters flyer Daniel Tupou as earned a recall on the wing after missing last year's series. Eels enforcer Reagan Campbell-Gillard will play his first Origin since 2018.

The starting 13 contains eight players who featured in Game Three of last year's series - Tedesco, Brian To'o, Wighton, Cameron Murray, Isaah Yeo, Junior Paulo, Tariq Sims and Damien Cook.

Billy Slater's first Origin squad as coach features four debutants - Cowboys duo Reuben Cotter and Jeremiah Nanai along with Broncos Patrick Carrigan and Selwyn Cobbo. Manly's Daly Cherry-Evans will skipper the side for the 10th consecutive time and is surrounded by familiar faces in the backline with Kalyn Ponga, Valentine Holmes, Dane Gagai, Xavier Coates and Cameron Munster all back on deck after playing in Game Three last year.

Ben Hunt has been named to start at hooker with Harry Grant on the bench, although the Storm No.9 could well end up playing more minutes than the Dragons skipper. After missing last year's series with injury, Roosters prop Lindsay Collins returns to the side and is named on the bench. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui moves to prop to replace Christian Welch, who is out with a season-ending achilles injury.

No changes to the squad when it was trimmed to 19 players on Tuesday with Tom Dearden 18th man and Jai Arrow the reserve. Thomas Flegler, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Murray Taulagi were the players omitted.

Key Match-up
Nathan Cleary v Daly Cherry-Evans
The Panthers playmaker has been a key figure in the three series wins the Blues have enjoyed since Brad Fittler took charge in 2018. His pinpoint kicking and game management led the Blues to thumping victories in Townsville and Brisbane last year before a shoulder injury ruled him out of Game Three and Cherry-Evans helped the Maroons save face on the Gold Coast. Cleary has been in sublime form since returning from shoulder surgery in Round 4, and his combinations with fellow Panthers Isaah Yeo and Jarome Luai are a key pillar in Fittler's game plan.

Manly maestro DCE has enjoyed a second coming as an Origin player since being recalled for the final game in 2018. He collected Man of the Match honours in Game One of the 2020 series, won 2-1 by the Maroons in an upset to rival Paul Vautin's 1995 underdogs. Cameron Munster, Kalyn Ponga and Cherry-Evans have only started three Origin matches together in the spine (winning two out of three), and how they combine as a trio will be intriguing to watch.

The two halfbacks will have to absorb hits all night after getting kicks away and then be expected to dust themselves off and lay on tries by hand or foot for the flyers out wide. Among a host of key battles on Wednesday night, Cleary and Cherry-Evans shapes as the most pivotal in seeing which team will walk away with the upper hand in this year's series.

Stat Attack
There have been 123 matches played since the State of Origin concept began with a one-off game at Lang Park on July 8, 1980. The ledger stands at 65 wins to Queensland, 56 to NSW and two draws. The Maroons have won 22 series to the Blues' 16 with two drawn in 1999 and 2002.

Since Origin moved to a three-game series in 1982 there have been just seven series clean sweeps and none since 2010. The Blues have enjoyed three sweeps - in 1986 under Wayne Pearce's captaincy and twice under Brad Fittler, in 1996 and 2000 - while the Maroons have achieved the feat four times - in 1988 and '89 under 'The King' Wally Lewis, in 1995 with Trevor Gillmeister at the helm and 2010 with Darren Lockyer leading the way.

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