Queensland's league resurgence: History repeats in the north

Billy Slater's Maroons have gone west with a very attainable Origin series win firmly on their minds. It's a significant turnaround from a year ago, when Queensland spirits were comprehensively doused by the rampant Blues; a 50-6 dismantling in Townsville, followed by a 26-0 Game II shutout at Suncorp.

On the plane for the five hour journey to Perth is a squad comprising some of the NRL's most exciting and precocious talent. Young men who were at their most impressionable when the Maroons were routinely decimating the Blues in the early part of this century. Kids who grew up watching the likes of Slater, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston presiding over eight straight series wins. Kids that have now, finally, come of age. So much so, that they've been deemed worthy of a squad being overseen by the aforementioned veterans.

In his maiden coaching tenure (at any level of the game), the once precocious prodigy Slater has mirrored what Queensland selectors did when he, Smith and Thurston came of age two decades ago. Throw them into the Origin arena and (metaphorically) get them used to the taste of blood. The formula worked then, finding themselves on the field with fellow current day retirees Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis, Nate Myles, Darius Boyd, Dallas Johnson, Corey Parker and Sam Thaiday. This promising brood was blooded alongside seasoned hard-heads like Steve Price, Petero Civoniceva and Darren Lockyer. Origin education was on offer wherever they looked; in camp and on the field.

Yet in the frequent celebration of the aura of Origin, and the 'made for Origin' style assessment of what makes a team succeed at this level, there is another important historical parallel often overlooked. And it exists in clubland. It has nothing to do with the theory of emotional connection to the cause (the passion, the belief). Rather; the similarities come down to one simple thing: form at the right time. And this year, Queensland clubs - for the most part - are simply ablaze.

A quick browse of the history books, if you will. In Game I of 2005, Jonathan Thurston made his debut. Later that year, he piloted the Cowboys to their maiden Grand Final appearance. Billy Slater chipped and regathered his way onto the scene in 2004, a year into Craig Bellamy's tenure at the Storm, with his now legendary fingerprints already shaping them into the beast they remain to this day. Cameron Smith was blooded in Game III of the previous year, an injury-prompted selection at the time, but also an investment in his once in a generation potential.

In 2006 the Maroons eight-year dynasty began, with the careers of Lockyer, Price and Civoniceva all famously in the firing line if it didn't. That series also featured Broncos stars Brent Tate, Justin Hodges, Shaun Berrigan and David Stagg. Those four players, alongside Lockyer, Thaiday and Civoniceva, went on to secure Brisbane's seventh (and to date, latest) premiership that year. Debuting alongside them that year was a skinny kid with eligibility concerns that still ruffle feathers south of the Tweed border. A guy who came to be known as 'GI.' His club side Melbourne went down to the Broncos in the 2006 decider, and won it all the next year. Greg Inglis took home a Clive Churchill medal for his troubles. The legend was born.

So much talk around Queensland Origin, for so long, has centered on loyalty and faith in selections. Players not necessarily lighting the world on fire in clubland- backed to grow the extra leg in maroon. This year's squad, while not fully abandoning that premise, is instead littered with promising youth who have carried the tag of promise for several years. Crucially, and what perhaps makes them more exciting, is the fact many of them have endured brutal, unrelenting pain and uncertainty at NRL level. The anguish of defeat has steeled this group; and the evidence is being seen at club and (for the time being) representative level.

With the exception of Selwyn Cobbo, a legitimate prodigy with minimal experience but maximum star quality, this Maroons unit is built on raw talent that has made the long awaited transition from promising to professional. Their coming of age is heavily reflected on the premiership ladder. With the exception of the Titans, this growth is reflected foremost at NRL level. While the Broncos or Cowboys might not win a title this year, they're both a darn sight better than they have been for a painfully long time, and on track to challenge for one. This has happened before; form players from Queensland clubs, picked amid a productive period for the state.

KEVVY'S BRONCOS: NO MAN'S FOAL

After years of pain, Kevin Walters has found the balance sorely lacking in the Brisbane roster. Barring the odd headline grabbing miss or departure (Sam Walker, Tom Dearden, Reece Walsh, Xavier Coates, Ethan Bullemor spring to mind), Walters has managed to keep the crop of youth that for so long was touted as 'Brisbane's Future.' This is no small feat in light of the challenges the club has faced.

It would be foolish not to think the likes of Pat Carrigan, Thomas Flegler and even Kotoni Staggs (dropped for the Game II Blues, perhaps harshly), haven't dreamt of what on field success might actually feel like during this period. Payne Haas certainly has. Add Cobbo's Nike sponsorship worthy potential and the reignition of that famous Red Hill aura, and their loyalty is starting to pay off. Also sprinkle a dose of Adam Reynolds (who even when not playing, earns his keep as a highly paid assistant coach), and a sprinkle of Kurt Capewell (who delivers team galvanizing plays for fun), and the Broncos are suddenly back.

A Top 4 spot beckons, with Haas, Carrigan and Flegler leading a pack that is routinely out-muscling and out-enthusing opponents. It's a bit frightening to think what an Origin series- particularly a winning one- will do for these guys, who finally are experiencing the highs at club level.

TODD'S COWBOYS: BACK IN THE SADDLE

Fifteenth in 2021, 14th in 2020 and 2019, 13th in 2018. You get the picture. Todd Payten endured a painful initiation last year, Paul Green a painful exit the year before. But both of them were part of the breakthrough 2015 premiership for the pride of the north, and the return to the big dance two short years later. Now there was an example of a talented crop coming of age; Jake Granville, Kyle Feldt, Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe, Michael Morgan, Jason Taumololo - to name but a few. This year's crop have all that and more about them. Payten is a highly rated coach, and he's got them playing high energy footy on both sides of the ball. Powerful, versatile forwards; confident, agile backs - it's a squad with everything at its disposal. Eleven wins, four losses, a +181 differential. The picture is clear indeed.

Maroons fans were lucky enough to meet the hammer last year, after Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow's try scoring debut in Game III. He hasn't featured in the Maroons game day squad this year, but his absence has been compensated by the blooding of multiple team mates. Jeremiah Nannai and (especially) Reuben Cotter showcased their menacing club form in Game I. Tom Dearden has soaked up his place in the extended squad, having finally delivered on years of highly touted potential in the NRL. Murray Taulagi edges Corey Oates out for a debut in Game II; both wingers being tough to separate based on club form, but Taulagi fitting neatly with the 'coming of age' blueprint. Throw in Valentine Holmes and Jordan McLean; and the Cowboys have very much got the representative rewards befitting a team sitting outright third.

THE TITANS: BLUNTED

And so we land on the Titans. It's been an underwhelming year for the only Queensland team to feature in last year's finals, winning just three of fifteen games. Tino Fa'asuamaleaui has made a wonderful impression as a young captain and can be backed to elevate club form to the Origin arena. Big Tino fits both the 'made for origin' and 'coming of age' blueprints for Billy Slater. Dalby born 23-year-old Beau Fermor has been rewarded for some tough output with a Maroons squad selection for Game II, coming after just 37 NRL appearances.

Coach Justin Holbrook is under immense pressure to avoid becoming the fourth coach to fall on his sword this year. The dismissal of high performance manager Klint Hoare (the second key staff sacking within a week) is a worrying sign for Holbrook's ongoing stocks, as is his team's occupation of last spot on the ladder.

David Fifita and Jaden Campbell headline a lengthy injury list this year, with the latter showing signs of joining the 'coming of age' ranks sooner rather than later (when he's on the field). Fifita's non-selection for the Maroons raised plenty of eyebrows, but based on club form makes total sense. And it's no great revelation that his hefty price tag has prompted a degree of imbalance in Holbrook's roster.

We've seen the blooding of the likes of Sam Mcintyre, who's damaging form for the Tweed Seagulls was recognised back in round nine. Like Campbell, still a ways to go. Chessboard moves to cushion the damaging departure of Jamal Fogarty have also failed to bear fruit; AJ Brimson, Toby Sexton and Paul Turner have all failed to fire in the halves rotation.

There's a stack of other players in their early to mid twenties who can form the basis of a Titans revival. The likes of Tanah Boyd, five time Maroon Mo Fotuaika, Erin Clark and Patrick Herbert- all have potential. But it won't happen this year. They're not ready, and the noise around the coach is a surefire way to instill uncertainty in the ranks. It's a bottom four finish for the Titans, and no guarantees as to who'll be holding the clipboard when the season comes to a close.

Queensland footy fans can only hope it's not an extended period of pain, but if the examples of the Broncos and Cowboys mean anything, that might just be exactly what is needed.