Yet there’s already resistance from some on the Blues coaching staff about picking Pearce because he ruled himself out of games one and two, despite his synergy with Maloney.
The old firm played in the halves for the Roosters when they beat Manly in the 2013 grand final.
They remain good friends and texted each other in the build-up to game two — which Maloney only played in when Pearce ruled himself out with a groin and hip injury on the morning of selection.
Pearce had also ruled himself out of game one when Fittler came knocking on the Knights’ dressing-room door after his side’s big win over the Roosters at McDonald Jones Stadium on May 24.
In that same match, Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary — who had been pencilled in as th Blues No.6 for weeks — had suffered a serious concussion.
Pearce said he was suffering from a groin injury but the Blues felt there was more to it. Few players have been belted by the Origin experience like Pearce so you could hardly blame him for being wary of being thrown into the snakepit.
That all changed after Queensland beat NSW in game one in Brisbane.
As revealed in the Herald last Friday, Pearce had been told leading up to game two that he would play the same dominant halfback role that’s been so successful for him at Newcastle this season.
Then, after the Knights’ heavy loss to Melbourne the night before the NSW team was named, the narrative changed: he’d be playing five-eighth with Cleary on the right, Pearce on the left.
When he woke up the next day with a sore groin and hip and was told by Knights medicos he wouldn’t be able to train until a few days before the Origin, he ruled himself out.
Some would see that as selfish. In reality, it was selfless. It wasn’t enough time to settle into a team he hadn’t played with.
He was making the best call for a Blues side that had to win to keep the series alive. Maloney — the last-last-last option for Fittler — then led the Blues to a win described by former Blues coach Phil Gould as the team’s “best in a decade”.
But those two withdrawals have convinced some within the Blues set-up that Pearce shouldn’t be considered for the decider. They don’t feel like he’s “snubbed” the state by any means — but they feel others in the side deserve the chance.
That person appears to be Wade Graham, the super-sub who played the second 40 minutes at halfback after Cleary didn’t return.
Perhaps Fittler answered his own question about who would partner Maloney when asked post-match about the prospect of recalling Pearce: “I haven’t thought about that – but I thought Wade Graham did a brilliant job. He was incredible.”
Graham also won a premiership with Maloney — in 2016 at the Sharks.
“I’m very comfortable with Jimmy,” Graham said. “Sometimes, how we used to play at Cronulla on the left edge was like a half and five-eighth. People forget that I played my first four or five seasons in the NRL in the halves, so it’s not completely new to me.
“Obviously, in this arena, it’s a bit different. But that’s a part of the job description when you get picked on the bench: you have to cover everything.”
He said Fittler and assistant coach Danny Buderus approached him on the sideline as they left the field at half-time about filling in for Cleary.
“Freddy and Bedsy came and seen me and said to just focus on a few key areas,” Graham said. “It was pretty simple: defend well, push hard and get involved.”
Well, it was a little more than that.
His combination on the left edge with Jack Wighton at centre and winger Josh Addo-Carr was lethal late in the match.
He placed a perfectly weighted grubber kick into the in-goal, despite the slippery surface from heavy rain, for Addo-Carr to score his first try. Soon after, he found the crack in the defensive line that led to the winger’s second.
When he wasn’t setting up tries, he was stopping them with desperate defence, including one effort on Maroons winger Dane Gagai, who was held up over the line.
Other possible options to partner Maloney include centre Wighton, who plays at six for his club, Canberra; Keary, who is nearing a return from concussion; and game-one sacrificial rabbit Cody Walker.
The other question is who would replace Graham on the bench.
Maloney remains hopeful Cleary — his Penrith teammate — will make a miraculous recovery.
“If Nath was unavailable and he was there, he [Pearce] wouldn’t be a bad call at all,” he said. “Regardless, my role won’t change. I know what I need to do. The reason I’m here and what I bring to the team won’t change. I’m crossing everything and hoping Nath is all right, for NSW and for Penrith. He’s a bit unsure.”
It sounds like wishful thinking.
As the Blues revelled in the rain on Sunday night, running in try after try against Queensland in game two, Cleary sat on the sidelines with a huge ice pack strapped just above his right ankle.
He left the ground in a moon boot and will have scans when he returns to Sydney.
“He will be battling to play in Origin II,” Blues doctor Paul Annett admitted. “It looks like syndesmosis and that’s a few weeks at the best of times. It will be touch-and-go.”
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.