If I was Brad Fittler
Picking the NSW team for Game 1
We’re well and truly into full blown State of Origin season now, and with Game 1 now a hair over two weeks away (May 31st at Adelaide Oval), it’s time to get into the weeds and talk about teams.
I’m going to be picking my New South Wales side, and explaining my reasoning for each selection as well as running through some other options. All in all this is a bit of fun, obviously this team isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and that’s the beauty of sport.
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Full disclosure, this is MY team. I’m not trying to get into the mind of Freddy to predict what he’ll do because frankly that’s a fool’s errand and I don’t have enough drugs.
For any Queenslanders reading this, don’t worry, your turn will be tomorrow, so stay tuned for that one.
Ok let’s go.
*Note: I’ll name the team and a “first drop” for each position.
There’s been an alarming upward trend in the idea that James Tedesco is deserving of being dropped from the NSW side because the Sydney Roosters are struggling this season and Teddy hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire.
I say this as a full on card-carrying member of the Dylan Edwards Fan Club, but James Tedesco is the captain of the state and one of the best Origin players full stop of his generation, and probably the best NSW Blue too.
People are quick to look at attacking numbers to judge Tedesco both in Origin last year and so far this season, but his game has never been about being that silky ball playing tertiary playmaker. Tedesco is a meter eating machine, and a lot of NSW’s successes, especially in 2021, were based around his workrate and involvement.
Just to humour the idea of another fullback, I do think it’s an interesting discussion who would be the first drop in theory.
Latrell Mitchell is the obvious answer as a bonafide superstar of the game and in the midst of some scintillating club form, but I’m not sure I love the idea of him not at centre in the Origin arena. Call it bias, but I think if you look at the body of work over the last 3-4 years, and the closest representation to Tedesco stylistically as a fullback with immense workrate in lieu of some of those more refined touches in good ball, Dylan Edwards is that guy.
But Teddy ain’t getting dropped so the point is moot.
NSW FULLBACK: James Tedesco
FIRST DROP: Dylan Edwards
I’ve seen predicted Origin sides floating around that have dropped Penrith winger Brian To’o, and frankly I’m rattled.
NSW’s winger stocks are a bit murky at the moment with injury clouds over some top contenders, but To’o’s spot should not be in contention due to his health and form. Running for ridiculous metres as always and composed under the high ball for a diminutive winger, To’o hasn’t let NSW down.
I’d also like to use this section to bemoan a lot of the rhetoric around picking a side “based on what Queensland would do.”
Picking a side based on the strengths of your opponent rather than the strengths of your own player pool is a weak minded strategy fraught with danger. It’s what cost Josh Addo-Carr his spot last year for Daniel Tupou to contest with the height of Xavier Coates, despite the Foxx’s immaculate Origin track history.
Speaking of Addo-Carr, he’s a walk up start in my Origin side any day of the week, and provided he gets through this weekend unscathed, being named to return from an ankle injury for the Bulldogs, I’m confident in slotting him back in.
Outside of To’o and Addo-Carr there really isn’t a lot that jumps out at me in terms of wing options. If you wanted to get esoteric, Stephen Crichton has played a large chunk of first grade on the right wing and could be a fallback option in case injury strikes.
Of course the elephant in the room here is Tom Trbojevic, and I may as well talk about him here as a segue to the centres because, spoiler, he isn’t in there.
All season I’ve been waiting to see Trbojevic stretch out and show me he’s back to form from his injuries, but he hasn’t been easy on the eye to watch move in weks, if at all this season.
Trbojevic deserves a spot in the NSW team for past service, but the difference between his situation and say, Tedesco, is Tedesco is scratching for form in a team that’s disjointed, while Trbojevic is out of form due to what appear to be his own physical limitations. I can’t do it.
Just to throw out some other names, I’ve loved what I’ve seen from Jacob Kiraz this season, and despite a quiet recent month with injury and poor Bulldogs form he might be one to watch, not this year but definitely in the future.
NSW WINGERS: Brian To’o, Josh Addo-Carr
FIRST DROP: Tom Trbojevic, Stephen Crichton
I don’t really know how much there needs to be said about the centres for NSW this year.
Latrell Mitchell is an auto selection after missing last series with injury, and should pick up a left side combination with Brian To’o that was simply electric in 2021. Not sure what more needs to be said here.
Equally so, Mitchell’s club teammate Campbell Graham just has to be in line to make his debut for NSW in Game 1. Graham has transformed his reputation over the last year or so from merely one of the best defensive centres in the game to one of the most complete outside backs, if not the form outside back in the competition.
Graham has everything you want in the modern day centre. He’s excellent as an aerial presence at both ends of the field, something not guaranteed with great height (see Coates, Xavier). His yardage work is immense, a not too common trait among centres in the NRL, who tend to not be as involved in yardage as wingers and the fullback.
Moreso, he’s added levels to his game as a playmaker and threat in the attacking red zone that I just didn’t know he had. His size makes him hard to bring down and his offloading ability and threat to keep plays alive in danger areas will be sorely needed without a healthy Tom Trbojevic around.
In terms of depth options, I do think Stephen Crichton is in and around this conversation too, although I’m not sure his form this season has been as good as people who don’t manically watch Penrith every week like I do realise.
Matt Burton will also inevitably get thrown around due to his history in the centres and his incumbency from 2022, but I just cannot look past Graham anymore, and while the kicking threat is nice to have, it was pretty rarely used last series.
One last name I want to bring up is Kotoni Staggs. His Origin debut was cut short with injury last year and he never got a look in again as NSW changed things up to make up for the 1-0 deficit, but I think he’s been outstanding for Brisbane this season, back to his dynamic best and showing the form that had commentators anointing him as a future Origin stalwart years ago.
NSW CENTRES: Latrell Mitchell, Campbell Graham
FIRST DROP: Stephen Crichton, Matt Burton, Kotoni Staggs
The trickiest discussion in the entire squad.
Let’s start with the incumbent, Jarome Luai. Luai’s Origin career has been fairly up and down. Part of a thrilling left side in 2021 with Latrell Mitchell and Brian To’o, scoring points for fun before missing Game 3 with injury and the series wrapped up. Last year, I don’t think he was anywhere near NSW’s worst in a series defeat, still making opportunities and accounting for points in beaten sides in Games 1 and 3.
Since Origin, Luai has gone on to win another premiership with Penrith and then star for Samoa in their historic run to the World Cup final. Two not insignificant achievements that highlight his quality. This season, however, his form has been quiet. Not bad, just a bit meek, save for the explosion against the Roosters. It’s fair to point out that Penrith’s entire left edge has changed around Luai, going from a settled trio of Taylan May, Izack Tago and Viliame Kikau last season to Sunia Turuva, both Tago and Tyrone Peachey in the centres, and a combination of the disappointing Luke Garner and Mr Fix It Scott Sorensen at back row. He’s learning new combinations. Would I have liked more tangible progress sooner? Yes of course, but only the true unicorns of the game (Munster) wouldn’t be slowed by that shift.
Now the new hotness, Nicho Hynes, fresh off a record points haul on the march to a Dally M medal (until this new double points system wipes that out this year). Nicho has been banging the door down for an Origin debut for a year now, being named 18th man several times without getting that crack.
Hynes has been in tremendous form for Cronulla this season since returning from a minor injury early in the season, showing great poise and control as the team’s dominant playmaker in lieu of a serious secondary option (no I’m sorry the forever young Matt Moylan isn’t that). People will point to Hynes’ record in big games for Cronulla as a knock on him, but I’m less worried about that in the Origin arena with the experience and quality around him. My biggest concern would be his role and whether he gets the ball enough to be effective.
Now the wildcard, which feels silly to say given his strong form over the last few years, but that’s Cody Walker, who always seems to be the third wheel in this Luai vs. Hynes Origin discussion. To be fair, from the outside, it seems like Walker’s card at the Origin level has been marked by Fittler after the disaster that was 2020.
Cody is the straw that stirs the hottest team in the league at the moment in South Sydney, and I do think he deserves another chance in the Origin arena. With the buzzword for NSW being all about combinations, having Walker next to Latrell is surely one that selectors would be salivating at in a vacuum.
Truth be told, I don’t think there’s a ‘bad’ choice for NSW here at this spot. Each player has their clear strengths as well as flaws. If there was an obvious head and shoulders leader above this pack then we wouldn’t be having this argument, but I don’t think there is.
Anyway, no more filibustering.
NSW FIVE-EIGHTH: Cody Walker
FIRST DROP: Jarome Luai, Nicho Hynes
After the dissertation around the five eighth, I don’t really think there’s much discussion to be had around the halfback.
Has Nathan Cleary had a flawless Origin career? No of course not.
But I do think we saw signs of progress last series, and his attacking involvement for Penrith, which has always been his weakness compared to his militant organisational qualities and lethal kicking game, have really gone up a level this year to compensate for an ailing left side.
The talk around NSW has always been needing a second kicking option to take pressure off Cleary, which I don’t think is unfair to point out. Obviously, Cleary is the primary kicker in club land, but three of Penrith’s top four forwards last year and this year have been ineligible for Origin to protect him (James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Viliame Kikau and Scott Sorensen). In a diluted pool, one kicker is fine with a strong pack. Not so much in Origin.
When it comes to kicking game, Hynes is probably the best of the three options listed above as halves partners, but I think Walker’s got more nuance and quality around his general kicking than people realise, especially having to shoulder more load the last two years with the departure of Adam Reynolds, as well as possessing a great short kicking game.
Luai throws up a couple of token bombs per game but his kicking value is primarily forcing drop outs and short kicking, he doesn’t have much of a long kick on him, which in this Penrith side is fine.
Sorry for hijacking the halfback chat with more five-eighth analysis.
NSW HALFBACK: Nathan Cleary
FIRST DROP: Nicho Hynes
Now with the forwards coming up, I’m going to note now. My bench has three forwards on it, so I’m not going to bother with first drops as it’ll just be a spoiler for the bench.
Much like the centre pairing, I think the front row picks itself.
Payne Haas has been absolutely dominant this season in a resurgent Brisbane side, laying waste to opposition forward packs almost single handedly, although the help from Patrick Carrigan helps.
Haas’ form has been so dominant he was the subject of this very newsletter’s debut piece. From humble beginnings indeed.
Meanwhile, Junior Paulo is in a side struggling at the moment, with Parramatta languishing in 14th, but it’s through no fault of the Samoan skipper, who constantly plays big minutes and is still chewing up metres to the tune of over 140 a game.
Mercifully for NSW, Paulo will also be free to play Origin I after avoiding a ban for a cannonball tackle over the weekend (which I thought was pretty lucky when looking back at the footage).
Both Haas and Paulo can go big minutes, leaving space for burst impact on the bench. I’ve been a critic of how Fittler has used his middle forwards in the past, and I do think a key for NSW is allowing Haas and Paulo to play those roles they excel at in club land.
Origin is a different intensity, sure, but these two can handle it.
NSW FRONT ROWERS: Payne Haas, Junior Paulo
It’s Damien Cook vs. Api Koroisau, so let’s look at the numbers.
Damien Cook has 4 try assists, 3 linebreak assists, is tackling at nearly 95%, and running for 68 metres a game.
Api Koroisau has 1 try assist, 1 linebreak assist, is tackling a hair under 88% and running for 61 metres a game.
I don’t necessarily think Koroisau is in bad form, it’s more a product of the terrible Wests Tigers side he’s found himself in this season, but I do think on form this season Cook is the front runner.
Much like five eighth there isn’t a bad choice here, so I’ll make my selection, but then work through the options after, so bear with me.
NSW HOOKER: Damien Cook
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s discuss the makeup of the hooking rotation.
Last year NSW went with two hookers in Games 2 and 3, with Koroisau starting and Cook off the bench. I think it worked fairly well, with Koroisau holding down the middle and then allowing Cook to come on and utilise his running game like he’s done to great effect in many Origins past.
But do NSW carry a second hooker? Or more accurately, do I?
The premise of this article is if I was the coach. So no, I’m only carrying one hooker, and here’s why.
I hate Fittler’s utility usage. So often the coach has zero idea how to use the utility, just having them sit there catching a cold for 75 minutes until being thrown into a maelstrom of chaos with one simple mission, “win the game.”
It doesn’t work like that. So for that respect, I hope Freddy does pick two hookers, because he at least used both of them a decent amount, rather than plonking a random outside back on the bench.
But I am not Freddy, I like to think I would use a utility better, so Cook is my only hooker (spoilers).
Let’s start with Cameron Murray.
Murray is, depending on who you ask, the best lock forward in the game, and definitely no lower than two. However, due to the emergence and presence of Isaah Yeo, Murray has been stuck on an edge in Origin, a role he can play with aplomb despite it maybe minimising some of his best characteristics.
To be clear, Murray has never let NSW down while playing on the edge, and I would like to see him roam the middle at some point as well, I’m just not sure how you achieve it if you want your lock forward (whoever that may be) to play 80 minutes, which is well within his remit.
Anyway, Murray is an autopick, so let’s move on.
The other back row spot is a little bit more contentious. There’s been a resurgence in chat Tyson Frizell may earn a recall, while Liam Martin returned from injury over the weekend for Penrith, and Keaon Koloamatangi would be in this conversation were it not for injury.
I’m sticking with the guy I’ve had in that spot all season long though, and that’s Haumole Olakau’atu.
Firstly, I’ll address the Instagram post from last year, which had some disturbing pro-maroon undertones. He’s since addressed those and made it clear he would be honoured to play for NSW.
Do I care about the Instagram story? No not really. Let he who has not posted dumb shit on social media cast the first stone.
On the field though, Haumole has been a barnstorming bright spot in a dour and dismal Manly side this season. I’ve seen a lot of talk that his form has dipped the last month or so, but I honestly think that’s been somewhat overstated given Mankly’s general suckiness.
Scoring five tries and running for over 130 metres a game in a side that’s constantly pantsed is pretty impressive for an edge forward. His lowest metres output this season is 97, the only time he’s failed to crack 100.
Consistent in a side mired in helplessness.
NSW SECOND ROWERS: Cameron Murray, Haumole Olakau’atu
Again, not much to say here, with Isaah Yeo not taking a step back in his exceptional form for a Penrith side working its way into some consistency following the losses of Koroisau and Kikau.
I said on a preseason podcast appearance on NRL Boom Rookies previewing the Panthers (which I will embed below) how I thought Yeo would take on more responsibility as a ball player this year due to the lost craft of replacing Koroisau with Mitch Kenny.
I think that’s somewhat come to pass so far this season, and while Yeo’s running game remains an ever present threat with his ability to churn metres through the middle and target weak points in a defensive line behind the ruck, his true value is being a link in the middle of the park to both sides of the attack (as well as his crossfield kicking as we saw on the weekend).
NSW LOCK FORWARD: Isaah Yeo
Well you already know it isn’t going to be Api Koroisau in this spot.
I think there are two pretty viable options here that offer unique points of difference that can impact games, provided they’re used correctly.
Matt Burton is a supreme athlete and is capable of covering both in the centres and halves. I actually think his ability as a runner is probably his best and most consistent asset as a football player, but people are overawed by the occasional thunderbastard he blasts from his left boot.
He has video game acceleration and is an excellent hole runner, both rare qualities in a half, while he’s also very rangy and good in the air in attacking ball sets, making him a dangerous utility.
Then there’s Nicho Hynes, who can cover anywhere in the spine in a pinch (although I probably wouldn’t love him at hooker), as evidenced from his time at Melbourne playing in the halves and at fullback. Hynes isn’t the raw athlete Burton is but his ball playing ability and vision are among the best in the competition.
Coming on late in the game I like Hynes’ measured game being a calming influence in a chaotic situation, and he’s also more than capable as a ball runner himself.
NSW UTILITY: Nicho Hynes
FIRST DROP: Matt Burton
Here’s my bench forward rotation wishlist.
I want one reliable middle forward to provide quality lengthy minutes if needed to spell one of Haas and Paulo.
I want one impact middle forward to provide 15 minutes of pure unrelenting energy and snarling ferocity.
I want one goddamn wildcard capable of doing insane shit and making plays.
NSW BENCH FORWARDS: Daniel Saifiti, Spencer Leniu, Hudson Young
Saifiti almost picks himself in the NSW forward rotation during yet another strong season for Newcastle where he’s fully morphed into the leader of that forward pack after the departures of both David Klemmer and Mitch Barnett over the offseason.
Running for 135 metres a game and as consistent as they come, Saifiti hasn’t let NSW down before and he won’t this time.
Full disclosure, I wrestled with this pick. I’ve gone back and forth with Saifiti and Tevita Tatola all week. I really think Tatola has roared into Origin contention for a bench spot with his form for Souths but his interrupted season and Saifiti’s incumbency just cost him.
Spencer Leniu has become a bit of a hipster pick for Origin as that firecracking impact bench forward in recent weeks, but I guess if everyone picks him then it isn’t exactly hipster is it.
Leniu’s actually in a bit of doubt right now with a ruptured testicle so this may all be for naught, but there’s no better specialist bench enforcer in the NRL right now than Leniu. He averages 122 running metres a game from his 8 appearances, all coming off the interchange. His most minutes played this season is 44, with his usual sweet spot being around the 35 mark.
If he can have that output in 35 bench minutes where he likely has to pace himself a bit, imagine him for 10-15 batshit insane minutes in Origin to give Payne Haas a quick breather.
Then there’s the wildcard in Hudson Young. One of Canberra’s standouts this season, Young has also been on the doorstep of Origin for a couple of seasons now but I think this year’s the year he breaks through.
As much as you can be a gamebreaking playmaker as an edge forward, that’s exactly what Hudson Young is. Does he have an error in him? Yeah he does, but his willingness to try stuff, his uncompromising style of play and his sheer ability to pull off something insane to win a game has bewitched Raiders fans all season, and it’s time for that to be in Origin too.
Dropping Tom Trbojevic was by far the toughest call but he just doesn’t look like himself at the moment, and you can’t carry physical question marks into Origin.
Also, I know he’s a divisive player but I did still find it incredibly hard to drop Luai. Part of that is just being a Panthers fan but also I do think sometimes he can be made a lightning rod for the failings of others around him a little more than is fair. Still, I ultimately found Walker’s form hard to ignore overall.
1. James Tedesco
2. Josh Addo Carr
3. Latrell Mitchell
4. Campbell Graham
5. Brian To’o
6. Cody Walker
7. Nathan Cleary
8. Payne Haas
9. Damien Cook
10. Junior Paulo
11. Haumole Olakau’atu
12. Cameron Murray
13. Isaah Yeo
14. Nicho Hynes
15. Daniel Saifiti
16. Spencer Leniu
17. Hudson Young
18. Matt Burton
19. Api Koroisau
20. Tevita Tatola
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