Greatest challenge since '06: Axe
It’s the same old Origin tale. The Maroons – chasing a 12th series win in 13 years – perceive themselves as the underdogs, despite taking on the least experienced NSW team in 15 series with 11 debutants.
And not everyone will accept that.
However, the man who is associated with the greatest underdog effort on Holden State of Origin history and in his 11th successive series on the Maroons coaching staff says Queensland face their biggest challenge since the start of their run.
While the focus is naturally on the sweeping clean of the Blues base under new coach Brad Fittler, the Maroons will field their 11th debutant in four games – their most significant change since the first game of their golden era began in 2006.
In the space of those four games, they have farewelled Origin icons Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk, with Billy Slater three matches away from joining them.
Since the end of the 2016 series, the Maroons have lost 227 games of experience through Smith (42), Thurston (37), Cronk (22), Corey Parker (19), Sam Thaiday (29), Matt Gillett (18), Darius Boyd (28) and Matthew Scott (22).
Their 11 changes since the start of last series equal the aggregate of changes in the Queensland team from 2007-11, emphasising the incredible stability they have enjoyed.
Yet they still have the edge on the new-look Blues with 112 combined appearances to their rivals’ 39.
Gillmeister has been on the Queensland coaching team since 2008 when he joined Mal Meninga. Steve Walters (manager since 2006) and Allan Langer have been by his side the whole time and will provide fellow Origin stalwart Kevin Walters with invaluable experience around the Maroons.
"We are underdogs, no doubt about it," claimed Gillmeister, captain of the Paul Vautin-coached Maroons of 1995 tagged "Neville Nobodies", who pulled off a clean-sweep against a depleted yet still star-studded Blues as the Super League war turned the game upside down.
"We like it that way. We’ve had a lot of changes from our side of two series ago with Smithy, Coops and JT not there, so we’ve lost a lot of experience.
"Last year we had eight debutants and three more this year. It is what it is. Four or five years ago everything would just fall into place. We wouldn’t have to over-coach them and that is an art in itself. They’d all been together so long they’d just go into camp and get about their business.
"Now we’ve had to do a little bit more coaching, and that will especially be the case this year - get them a little bit more comfortable with each other and comfortable with us.
"You don’t lose that much experience overnight and not have an impact. They won’t be as relaxed as the blokes here before but it sort of reinvigorates the squad as well. You see the excitement in the new players coming in and it rubs off.
"The key is to tell them not to play their game too early and things like that. The beauty about it all is you never know what is going to happen, and that’s Origin. We don’t know for sure who is going to handle it and who isn’t."
That can be especially applied to the Blues this season. But Queensland love to claim the underdog's tag. It’s inherent in their make-up but, also, the Maroons of ‘95 captained by Gillmeister have never been forgotten.
It astounds Gillmeister that several recent players who weren’t born then or were in short pants are aware of, or certainly curious about, that particular feat.
"Players do ask me occasionally about it, even though a lot of them weren’t born," Gillmeister said.
"JT and Smithy would bring it up. Smithy is a real student of the game’s history and they would say to me ‘how did you win, not just the first game but all three games?' I tell them I can’t put my finger on it but we just had a greater desire to win than NSW. If you could bottle that and replicate it, you’d be a multi-billionaire.
"That’s why we’re here. We don’t get in there and tell them about how good we were - Alf [Langer], Box [Steve Walters] and myself are here to be sounding boards alongside Kevvie.
"Hopefully it makes the players more relaxed. But then it’s up to them once they run out.”
Queensland debutants since 2006
2018: Jai Arrow, Felise Kaufusi, Andrew McCullough;
2017: Anthony Milford, Dylan Napa; Valentine Holmes, Jarrod Wallace, Coen Hess, Tim Glasby; Cameron Munster, Ben Hunt;
2016: Corey Oates, Justin O’Neill, Matt Cooper;
2015: Michael Morgan, Josh McGuire; Dane Gagai;
2014: Aidan Guerra;
2013: Chris McQueen, Daly Cherry-Evans, Josh Papalii;
2012: Matt Gillett; Ben Te’o;
2011: Dane Nielsen, Jharal Yow Yeh;
2010: Matt Ballin, Cooper Cronk, Dave Taylor;
2009: David Shillington;
2008: Israel Folau, Ben Hannant; Darius Boyd;
2007: Neville Costigan, Anthony Kaufusi;
2006: Greg Inglis, Steven Bell, David Stagg, Matthew Scott, Dallas Johnson, Sam Thaiday, Nate Myles; Karmichael Hunt, Adam Mogg, Jacob Lilyman.
Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Bronze tickets available from $49 here.