Form is less ambiguous; it’s easier to understand.
Of course, this free advice comes with all care and no responsibility from an old Origin coach who, back in the day, probably leaned more towards loyalty, relationships and “gut feel”, rather than anything else. We did get great results along the way. Then again, it might’ve been good luck more than good management.
What I do know is that Queensland’s decade of domination led to a series of NSW selection changes, experiments and clangers, as they tried in vain to discover the secret to success.
Last year Fittler brought a fresh and courageous approach to team selection and produced a line-up of youngsters for whom NSW fans actually wanted to cheer. Young players who were in great form for their clubs and seemingly free from the mental scars of past defeats. These lads delivered the goods with a stirring series victory.
Naturally, it was expected that NSW would now show real loyalty to this young brigade and select them all again in 2019. Surely they would be better for the experience? Surely this would be the start of a new winning era for the Blues? Pick and stick.
Well, it’s so much easier to show loyalty to players when they are in good form. Conversely, it takes a real leap of faith to show loyalty to players who are out of form.
Does Fittler ignore the winning form of several players who are delivering for teams towards the top end of the NRL ladder? Or does he stick with those players who are with clubs at the bottom of the ladder, simply because they played in his winning Origin squad last season?
Loyalty or form?
I think many of the players from last season are in great form and are automatic selections. Some, not so much.
Tom Trbojevic (injury) and Jack de Belin (stood down) are not available for selection at this time.
Fullback James Tedesco is good to go. So, too, his Roosters teammates Latrell Mitchell and Boyd Cordner, at left centre and left-edge back row respectively.
Josh Addo-Carr has lost no admirers for that left wing position. He might not be in scintillating form for Melbourne, but he’s going well enough. Plus he’s a genuine match-winner.
I think the Blues are also resigned to leaving out Broncos flyer James Roberts, at least for the opening encounter. His form is down, he appears to have ongoing injury issues and his club coach has dropped him.
Damien Cook has been in outstanding form for the Rabbitohs this year. He was brilliant in Origin last year and he’s a “must have” for this year’s series.
Dragons front-rower Paul Vaughan looks to be a safe bet. Tyson Frizell deserves selection and Angus Crichton has done more than enough with his new club to warrant loyalty.
Jake Trbojevic has been outstanding for Manly. Lock him in, too.
Now, a couple of the big front-rowers, such as Newcastle’s David Klemmer and Penrith’s Reagan Campbell-Gillard, are going OK without setting the world on fire. You could look elsewhere for players in this position, but other than Cronulla’s Andrew Fifita, it’s pretty hard to find a big man who is demanding selection.
Fifita is an enigma. He is also polarising: you either love him or hate him. Who knows if he wants to play for NSW anyway?
Gold Coast’s Ryan James and Shannon Boyd are injured and their form has been moderate at best.
This leaves the Blues searching for a right winger and/or right centre to cover for the loss of Turbo Tom. A couple of bench spots are always up for grabs. Fittler needs 80-minute players who can cover several positions at an instant.
Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room: the contentious halves positions.
Incumbents Nathan Cleary and James Maloney are under siege. It’s no good sugar-coating it. There are halves from rival clubs in form who are knocking the door down. At the moment, Cleary and Maloney are banking on loyalty rather than form to retain their positions. Mind you, we can hardly lump the performances of the Panthers so far this season just on their halves. I’m sure they would lift for NSW if selected.
OK. Let’s go through the team.
Fullback: Tedesco. Done.
Left wing: Addo-Carr. The only other player I could entertain on form would be Daniel Tupou.
Left centre: Mitchell. Done.
Right centre: There is no Roberts. Tom Trbojevic and Joey Leilua are unavailable, and now Jack Bird is gone for the rest of the season. Dragon Euan Aitken and Panther Waqa Blake have failed to mount challenges with their club form. Storm boy Curtis Scott appears to be on leave at present. Then we have Josh Dugan? Wait on, my eyes have just glazed over. Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson. Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson. Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson. I’m having strange flashbacks. The little man inside my head is telling me not to open that door. I will listen to him.
I think we might have to go back to Josh Morris. He’s Origin tough and is playing great footy at the Sharks. He’s been there and done that and won’t let anyone down.
Right wing: Blake Ferguson has demanded this spot with his form. Parramatta folk are raving about his attitude and the confidence he has brought to the playing group. He’s hard to deny. Nick Cotric interests me, but his form is not as prominent this year as last. I think it has to be Ferguson.
Half and five-eighth:
Drum roll …. let’s leave these positions until last.
Lock: Jake Trbojevic is a certainty. Rabbitoh Cameron Murray should be on the bench as a middle interchange.
Left edge back row: Cordner. Tariq Sims as a potential interchange player to cover this role.
Right edge back row: Frizell. Crichton has the form to cover this position from the bench. Frizell can cover a middle front-rower position late in the game if needed. Nice duo.
Front rowers: Vaughan and Klemmer. I think Campbell-Gillard has the ability and should get a bench spot. I would not be against gambling with young Bronco Payne Haas at some stage during this series. Maybe not Origin I, but he’s not far away. I think he is special and his tender age doesn’t deter me.
Hooker: Cook. End of story.
Ok, here we go …
Half and five-eighth: The form players are definitely Roosters No.6 Luke Keary and Rabbitohs No.6 Cody Walker. Rabbitoh Adam Reynolds and Raiders No.6 Jack Wighton are also in great touch. The best No.7 display in the past 12 months has been Keary in the grand final when he inspired his team to victory and won the Clive Churchill Medal.
Then we have Cleary and Maloney. This time last year, Fittler was very keen to blood young Cleary. I only had two comments: If you pick him now, you must be prepared to stick with him for three years to prove himself. Given the fact there was a real lack of alternatives at that time, I considered this to be a fair request. Secondly, Maloney must play with him. Cleary needed a minder and NSW needed Maloney. The combination worked perfectly.
Cleary works hard, he is brave, he defends stoutly and he kicks so well. There is no doubt in my mind that Maloney was the rock of the team. His experience was invaluable. In this young squad, his demeanour and guile are so important.
Yet their club form for the Panthers has not demanded selection. This is the classic loyalty v form debate right here.
I’m torn. My loyalty to the Panthers pair is strong. I know they would lift. However, the coach in me is recommending we pick on form. Keary’s form cannot be denied. He deserves to be the No.6. It also completes the potent Roosters left side combination with Cordner, Mitchell and Tedesco. That will terrify Queensland.
Halfback? I’m sticking with Cleary. I think his development as a player will be further enhanced by another year in Origin football. I believe the Cleary-Keary combination would work. The other combination I would consider is Reynolds and Keary.
I would definitely have Canberra’s Wighton as one of the four bench spots.
So, for what is worth, my team is: Tedesco, Ferguson, J Morris, Mitchell, Addo-Carr, Keary, Cleary, Klemmer, Cook, Vaughan, Cordner (c), Frizell, Trbojevic. Reserves: Campbell-Gillard, Crichton, Murray, Wighton. 18th man: Payne Haas
Phil Gould is a League Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald