Knights duel key factor in Origin opener

QUEENSLAND assistant coach Michael Hagan expects the wing duel between Knights teammates Darius Boyd and Aku Uate could go a long way to deciding the first State of Origin game at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne tonight.

Boyd will line up outside Greg Inglis on Queensland’s left flank, marking up directly against Uate on the NSW right edge. They filled the same positions last year, when the Maroons secured an unprecedented sixth straight series, though Boyd was still playing for the Dragons.

Uate has a new centre partner this year in Josh Morris. Usually a left centre for the Bulldogs, Morris has replaced the retired Mark Gasnier.

Hagan, who coached Queensland in 2-1 series losses in 2004 and 2005 and has been Maroons mentor Mal Meninga’s assistant since replacing Neil Henry in 2010, said Boyd and Uate could expect to be pressured throughout the match.

Though it would be up to the packs to establish authority in the middle and provide a platform for their playmakers, the outcome could hinge on a flash of brilliance by an outside back or an error committed under stress or fatigue.

‘‘I think it will be a pretty good battle. Last year, it wasn’t in the same context because Darius hadn’t agreed to come to Newcastle at that time, so it changes the focus and the interest for both of them to a fair degree,’’ Hagan told the Newcastle Herald yesterday.

‘‘I don’t know that Darius is actually talking to Aku this week. I doubt there’s been too much dialogue there ... but the contest on that side of the field should be significant.

‘‘They’re both exciting players, and they’re both capable of finishing off things pretty well. Morris and Uate versus Inglis and Boyd – I reckon that will have a reasonable influence on the game. I’m sure both players will come under pressure from the other side.

‘‘Both will be expected to take high balls and stuff ... NSW had us coming out of that left corner a fair bit last year, so it’s fair to expect there’s going to be a reasonable amount of pressure on both Darius and Aku.’’

Hagan believed Boyd, who is preparing for his fifth Origin series, had grown in confidence since his return to form for the Knights in their 32-12 loss to the Cowboys 11 days ago.

‘‘It’s been noticeable how well he’s trained this week,’’ he said. ‘‘I think he likes being in this sort of company. He and Greg Inglis ... throw in Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston, so I think he quite enjoys being on the end of that backline.

‘‘Who wouldn’t like being on the end of that backline?

‘‘I think he’s a confidence player, and he will gain confidence being around those sort of players, having been a part of that team for the last few years. He feels quite comfortable in that company.’’

Uate made his Origin debut last year and played all three games of the series.

Averaging 13 runs for 131 metres a game, the Fijian-born flyer made a total of 16 tackle breaks, two line breaks, a try assist, and scored his first Origin try in NSW’s 34-24 loss in game three.

‘‘There’s no doubt that your honesty in kick-chase on him has to be very good,’’ Hagan said. ‘‘I thought he was probably one of their better players over the three games last year, in terms of his contribution on kick reception and ‘play-two’ (dummy-half runs), so we know we have to be pretty physical on him.’’

Former Newcastle and NSW game-breaker Adam MacDougall, who recalled locking horns with former Knights teammate Robbie O’Davis on the Origin stage in the late 1990s, said Uate and Boyd would be motivated by personal pride as well as interstate rivalry.

‘‘I’d probably be the last guy from Newcastle that went up directly against a fellow Knights player, when I went up against Robbie O. I remember in one game I threw him around like Bert Newton throws his hairpiece around,’’ MacDougall laughed.

‘‘At first, in the lead-up to the game, you’re absorbed by the game itself, but there is that extra little bit of motivation too because you want to get one over your teammate.

‘‘It’s all good-spirited, but knowing Aku the way I do, I’m sure he’d like to get bragging rights when he comes back to training at the Knights, and there is always that added little bit of pressure when you’re playing one of your club teammates.

‘‘Whilst you’re great mates, you don’t want to let your mate get one over you, particularly on a stage like Origin, so it certainly adds a little bit of extra interest to the battle and they’ll both be doing their best to try to get one up on each other.’’

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