Blues five-eighth Jarome Luai and halfback Nathan Cleary may be the connection fans and commentators focus on during State of Origin I on Wednesday night.
But, as Cleary himself has said, Isaah Yeo is “the real link man”.
After playing 101 minutes for New South Wales off the bench in last year’s series, Panthers’ lock Yeo has converted dominant 2021 form into the number 13 jersey.
For Penrith, Luai and Cleary combine from time to time, usually in the attacking 20 when Cleary takes over inside Luai on the left.
But it’s Yeo who commonly acts as the source for the halves’ wider forays.
He’s touched the ball close to 300 times this NRL season, and more than half have come on the fourth or fifth tackles of sets.
It’s why having the three combine at Origin level is so extraordinary.
“It can be pretty easy [to bring the Penrith structure into Origin] with the amount of players we have,” Luai told AAP this week.
“Those combinations transfer,” fullback James Tedesco said.
“We come together for a week or so and try and build those combinations but when you’ve been playing together for years … you know each other’s games inside and out and that definitely helps on the field.”
Why Yeo is key
It can be difficult to appreciate the impact of a ball-playing forward in the middle of the field while watching NRL on TV from the conventional, side-on angle.
But the aerial camera used for Magic Round brings Yeo’s brilliance to the fore.
Here, Yeo signals to Cleary outside him, prior to the play.
The lock then runs hard towards the hole between marker and first defender, slowing the marker’s lateral movement and drawing his opposite defender two steps inside.
Upon receiving the ball, Yeo angles outside again. All of a sudden Penrith has a three-on-two opportunity in the middle of the field.
Only a slight delay in the arrival of the support outside Cleary prevents a linebreak … created by Yeo’s space-making, ball-playing nous.
Changing the locks
The task for Blues’ coach Brad Fittler is bringing the best out of the Panthers’ stars in the faster, more physical environment of Origin.
On 2021 form, the Blues’ pack lacks the same go-forward as the Maroons’.
But it does offer something Queensland’s does not.
Jake Trbojevic averages only fractionally fewer passes per minute than Yeo. And Cam Murray and Junior Paulo both average about the same as Queensland’s most pass-friendly forward, Christian Welch.
Replicating Penrith’s combinations for the Blues might be sensible given the club’s dominance of the NRL. But their prominence leaves them scouted and potentially countered.
That makes the Blues’ ball-playing ability across the park important.
If the Blues can match Queensland’s forward march, watch Yeo and his ball-playing band silence the Townsville stands.
Game one of the State of Origin series starts on Wednesday at 8.10pm AEST. Radio coverage is on ABC Sport via your local ABC station.