Based on what Daly Cherry-Evans and Cameron Munster produced at Suncorp Stadium in the final game of last year, we knew their combination worked. The Walker-Nathan Cleary combination, however, was an unknown. Given what they produced on their first go, they may not get a second.
Before he was knocked out against Newcastle and, subsequently State of Origin I, Luke Keary was the first NSW half picked. Perhaps he will belatedly get the chance to pull on the Blues jersey.
The selection of Cleary was more controversial than that of his halves partner. Unlike Walker, Cleary’s form was like that of his club side; ordinary. Fittler chose him last year on potential, this time on faith. For the most part, he rewarded it.
Throughout the lead up, Blues assistant Andrew Johns told Cleary to narrow his focus. His first task, as the Immortal wrote in his Herald column, was to own the first 20 minutes. On this score, Cleary was a resounding success. After the opening quarter of an hour, Johns was asked to provide an appraisal of Cleary’s start.
“At the moment, he’s getting an A-plus,” Johns said in commentary for Nine.
With Panthers teammate James Maloney not there to take control, Cleary had to step up. He kicked long, sometimes early in the tackle count, in a bid to get Queensland on the back foot. In theory, that should have allowed Walker, one of the most instinctive players in the game, to take advantage. It never happened. The South Sydney pivot has been involved in more NRL tries than any other player this year, but couldn’t find his rhythm here. He ran the ball just four times.
Most of the quality football NSW played was off the back of Damien Cook and James Tedesco. Given his club combination with the dynamic dummy half, it was surprising Walker struggled to involve himself. Another man who saw little quality football was Mitchell, another failing of the Blues halves.
Cook and Tedesco were the dominant figures for most of the match, before momentum swung in favour of the Queenslanders.
Fittler has wrestled to find the balance between form and loyalty. He was loyal to Cleary and rewarded Walker’s strong start to the year. But if Keary is available for Origin II, it could again be a case of Walker’s off.
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.