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The NRL takes a break this weekend but there’s no shortage of high-quality, high stakes footy on the schedule.

Aside from Sunday’s State of Origin blockbuster on Sunday night, there’s the women’s Origin clash on Friday and an international rugby league triple-header on Saturday.

WOMEN’S STATE OF ORIGIN

NSW Blues Vs QLD Maroons

Friday 24 June, 7:45pm, GIO Stadium

New South Wales and Queensland head to Canberra’s GIO Stadium for the fifth annual one-off Women’s State of Origin fixture.

After NSW claimed the first two women’s interstate matches under the Origin banner in 2018-19, Queensland has struck back with victories in 2020 (24-18) and 2021 (8-6) – the latter after a penalty goal in the dying minutes. But all four Origins to date have gone the way of the home side, which gives the Blues an edge in the capital.

The Blues will be steered around by Newcastle halfback Kirra Dibb and Rachel Pearson, who go up against the seasoned Maroons halves pairing of Ali Brigginshaw and Tarryn Aiken.

The fullback duel between NSW’s Dally M Medal winner Emma Tonegato and Queensland flyer Tamika Upton will be worth the price of admission alone.

The Blues will look to blockbusting centre pairing Jessica Sergis and Isabelle Kelly to provide game-breaking punch, while a highly experienced pack is headlined by Kezie Apps, Simaima Taufa, Hannah Southwell and another Dally M Medallist in Millie Boyle.

The Maroons’ dummy-half rotation of Brittany Breayley-Nati and Lauren Brown shapes as a trump card for the visitors.

In Brigginshaw and second-rowers Tallisha Harden and 2021 player of the match Tazmin Gray, the Maroons boast three players who have featured in all four previous Origins. But Blues quartet Kelly, Apps, Southwell and Taufa are also backing up for the fifth time.

Only one of the four women’s Origins have produced more than 26 points and another bruising arm-wrestle looms. Queensland’s spine strength – particularly the poise and leadership of all-time great Brigginshaw – shapes as decisive advantage, however.

Tip: Back Queensland To Win @ $2.00

New Zealand Vs Tonga

Saturday 25 June, 3:20pm, Mt Smart Stadium

A week ahead of the Warriors’ homecoming match, rugby league makes an emotional return to Mt Smart Stadium – and the New Zealand Kiwis and Mate Ma’a Tonga are back on the international stage for the first time in almost three years.

The No.1-ranked, Michael Maguire-coached Kiwis bear little resemblance to the team that swept Great Britain 2-0 in late-2019 – but it’s nevertheless a very impressive side. Jahrome Hughes and Dylan Brown form a new halves combination, with Joseph Manu at fullback and Brandon Smith at hooker.

New Zealand’s outside-back depth isn’t quite what it used to be and Ronaldo Mulitalo and Marata Nikukore have been handed debuts, with experienced duo Peta Hiku and Jordan Rapana also named.

The Kiwis are swimming in elite props (Jesse Bromwich, Fisher-Harris, Leota, Asofa-Solomona) and back-rowers (Papali’i, Tapine), however, and boast the versatility and experience of Kieran Foran and Kenny Bromwich.

The State of Origin selection puzzle has delivered Kotoni Staggs into Tonga’s lap but robbed them of Daniel Tupou and Siosifa Talakai. There’s no shortage of power and pace out wide (Katoa, Koula, Suli, Tuipolotu) and eye-watering forward strength (Taumalolo, Fonua-Blake, Taukeiaho, Tupouniua, Olakau’atu, Koloamatangi) though.

The clear difference between the firepower-laden rivals is the Kiwis’ huge advantage through the spine. Tonga will field Staggs and Talatau Amone in the halves, Siliva Havili at hooker and Tolutau Koula at fullback – serviceable but far from crème de la crème, whereas the Kiwis are world-class in each of the key positions.

Whether that’s enough to justify a 10.5-point start is debatable, but New Zealand is a deserving favourite.

Since Tonga’s watershed 28-22 victory over New Zealand in Hamilton at the 2017 World Cup, the nations have met once – with the Kiwis running out convincing 34-14 winners in Auckland. Mt Smart will be awash with the red of Mate Ma’a Tonga supporters again, but the Kiwis should be too clinical.

Tip: Back New Zealand to win by 1-12 @ $3.05

SGM: NEW ZEALAND WIN / ISAIAH PAPALI’I ANYTIME TRY SCORER / JAHROME HUGHES ANYTIME TRY SCORER

Samoa Vs Cook Islands

Saturday 25 June, 5:40pm, Campbelltown Sports Stadium

Toa Samoa head into their Pacific double-header against Cook Islands as 33.5-point favourites – a reflection of the quality and experience of the respective squads. Samoa will be confident of doing some damage at the end-of-year World Cup if they can keep this line-up together.

A solid spine of Anthony Milford, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Jazz Tevaga and Charlie Staines gives Matt Parish’s side an immediate advantage. Meanwhile, three-quarters Taylan May, Izack Tago, Jaxson Paulo and David Nofoaluma should have a field day out wide on the back of a platform laid by Martin Taupau, Francis Molo, Josh Aloiai, Spencer Leniu and Bunty Afoa.

Josh Schuster shapes a real dangerman in the back-row for Samoa and Jaydn Su’A takes their tally of Queensland Origin reps to three.

Cook Islands’ squad is a bit short on the top-level NRL and Super League talent they’ve been able to call upon in previous years. Wakefield Trinity stalwart Tinirau Arona, veteran centre Anthony Gelling, Parramatta bench regular Makahesi Makatoa, Souths giant Davvy Moale and Brisbane colt Brendan Piakura are the headline selections for the Tony Iro-coached side.

Cook Islands’ last rep round match in 2017 resulted in a spirited 32-22 loss to Papua New Guinea. They missed that year’s World Cup and the nation’s Test schedule since consists of big wins over South Africa and USA in 2019.

Samoa have won only one of their last nine Tests and were very disappointing at the 2017 World Cup. Their last internationals in 2019 garnered a 24-6 midyear win over PNG and a 44-18 end-of-season loss to Fiji.

Cook Islands did win the last encounter between these teams back in 2009, upsetting a handy Samoa line-up 22-20 in Cairns. But a repeat – or even a close contest – seems highly unlikely this time around.

Tip: Back Samoa to Cover the Line (-33.5 Points) @ $1.87

SGM: SAMOA OVER 39.5 POINTS / TAYLAN MAY TO SCORE A HAT-TRICK / DAVID NOFOALUMA ANYTIME TRY-SCORER / JOSH SCHUSTER ANYTIME TRY SCORER @ $26.10

Papua New Guinea Vs Fiji

Saturday 25 June, 7:50pm, Campbelltown Sports Stadium

Tier-two staples Papua New Guinea and Fiji resume a spirited Pacific rivalry at Campbelltown on Saturday night. The nations have managed to avoid each other in World Cup competition but have been regular opponents in recent years, with four clashes since 2015 split two apiece.

The Kumuls carved out a 26-14 win in the 2018 Pacific Test at this venue on the back of a dominant first half. The Bati won a 22-20 thriller in Christchurch in late-2019, having thrashed Samoa 44-16 in Auckland a week earlier. PNG, of course, went on to pummel Great Britain 28-10 in a historic result in Port Moresby during that post-season.

Papua New Guinea boast five survivors from the teams’ last encounter, including big guns Justin Olam and Alex Johnston. David Mead also returns for his 15th Test appearance, while Roosters playmaker Lachlan Lam will don the Kumuls’ No.7.

Fiji’s spine lacks top-level experience besides makeshift five-eighth Kevin Naiqama, but a three-quarter line featuring Maika Sivo, Mikaele Ravalawa, Waqa Blake and Semi Valemei is dripping with scoring potential, while the Bati’s pack features Viliame Kikau, Tui Kamikamica and Isaac Lumelume.

On paper Fiji does appear to have an overall edge, but they are giving up 10.5 points at the line – too many for what should be a close-fought, passionate and brutally physical encounter.

Tip: Back Papua New Guinea to Cover the Line (+10.5 Points) @ $1.90

SGM: FIJI BY 1-12 / UNDER 44.5 POINTS / ALEX JOHNSTON ANYTIME TRY SCORER / MIKAELE RAVALAWA ANYTIME TRY SCORER @ $34.74