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Let the mind games begin
State versus state.
Forgive my lateness in this week’s edition, but I really wanted to talk about the freshly announced State of Origin teams and the only way to do that was to wait a day and discuss hard truths rather than speculate on potential insanities.
Boy am I glad I waited a day.
State of Origin is a state of mind only espoused by the dissidents of the two warring states, a concept so peculiar in the wider scope of world sport that trying to explain it to a non-believer would be like trying to tell a Frenchman the Eiffel Tower is in Las Vegas (although I’m sure PVL would use that as a lynchpin to growing the game).
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The countdown to team lists is full of media leaks, subsequent outrage and overreaction and panic and armchair selectors and countless “what the fuck is Freddy doing” texts shared amongst friends, then other media leaks that disprove the first round of media leaks and the cycle begins anew.
Regarding the New South Wales side (I’ll get to Queensland shortly), most of the information that begun streaming in late on Sunday night ahead of Monday morning’s announcement was assumed knowledge.
“Jarome Luai retains starting five eighth spot for Origin I with Nicho Hynes to be the bench utility…”
“Tom Trbojevic and Josh Addo-Carr produce timely performances to help solidify their return to the Origin side after both missing the 2022 series…”
“Api Koroisau edges out Damien Cook for the sole hooker spot…”
“Hudson Young set to earn a State of Origin debut…”
“Tevita Pangai Junior to replace the injured Jake Trbojevic…”
Most of the selection conundrums (five eighth, centre, wing, hooker) for NSW held to expected form and the player pool contending for each spot was pretty clearly defined, no stones unturned and no surprise BOLTERS.
And then the chad Freddy Fittler spat in the face of analytics, form guides and film review and selected the most polarising, destructive, volatile forward in the game, one who not even the most ardent Bulldogs fan or Pangai stan would’ve thought had a realistic, let alone total outside chance, at being remotely close to the Origin squad.
But here we are.
For what it’s worth, I do think there is an element of overanalysis when people see the Pangai selection. If you take a step back and try and contextualise what his role will be, it kind of makes a modicum of sense, not that I’m saying there’s a method to Freddy’s madness because that would be a bold claim.
Look at the rest of the Blues middle forwards. Payne Haas, Junior Paulo, Isaah Yeo, Cameron Murray and Liam Martin (in a pinch) are all great players, but they’re all, what’s the word…safe? Not boring, but you know what you’ll get from each of them, there isn’t much grey area in their games. Reliability.
But every good team has one forward that can come on to the field for 10-15 minutes, break some skulls, start a few fights, be a general pest and break the game open. Now, the risk with someone like Pangai is that he breaks the game open for Queensland with his aggressive-bordering-on-nuclear style of play backfiring and tens of thousands of manic Queenslanders fill the Adelaide Oval with their mirth as Tevita trudges off the field after being sin binned for a stupid late high shot but hey, that’s the risk our brave trailblazer Freddy takes by flying this close to the sun.
Lastly on Pangai, I want to make it clear, I think the actual selection is brazen, ludicrous and reeks of smartest guy in the room energy from Fittler. It might work, sure, but hanging your potential job and legacy on an enforcer with maybe an hour of coherent football this entire season is not how I would’ve gone.
Further afield, Campbell Graham is the main victim of Freddy’s staunch loyalty to the victorious 2021 Blues, especially in the backline. The entire 1-7 is the exact same now as it was for Origins I and II in that 2021 series where the Blues eviscerated Queensland to the tune of 76-6 over the first two games.
Will that repeat? Unlikely, but the comfort of getting back two security blankets in Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic, as well as rectifying the mistake of dropping Josh Addo-Carr, will cause Freddy no small comfort.
That ultimately means though that Campbell Graham is the biggest loser out of all of this. Last week I picked my Blues side and he was in it at right centre in lieu of Tom Trbojevic, and even after Trbojevic showed glimpses of something resembling his better days on the weekend, it wouldn’t have been enough for me to resist picking who I think has been the form outside back in the competition in Graham, who has since been released from Origin duties as the 18th man under the guise of a sternum injury.
The Graham conundrum is tougher than I think people realise though. Brian To’o and Latrell Mitchell have the left side locked down, leaving Graham to fight for a spot on the right, and as soon as Trbojevic showed his fitness on the weekend every punter watching knew he’d booked his spot. There’s been talk about selecting Graham on the wing, but I never fully subscribed to that line of thinking. I personally wouldn’t have picked him on the wing over Addo-Carr anyway, unless the Foxx was obviously hampered by his ankle, which appears to not be the case.
The rest of the Blues side somewhat picked itself. I am mildly surprised at the composition of the backrow, with Raiders debutant Hudson Young and Knights recallee (is that a word? It is now) Tyson Frizell starting on the edges while 2022 starting edges Liam Martin and Cameron Murray remain on the bench.
I love the Young selection, and he’s been banging down the door with his form for the better part of a season now. Plays happen around him, and while he also carries a bit of crazy in his game, he’s been genrally controlled and involved in all of Canberra’s good this season. Frizell, meanwhile, is another Freddy insurance pick. He’s having a solid season for Newcastle, and while unspectacular in the Origin arena, he’s never disgraced himself.
Meanwhile, with Murray and Martin on the bench, it obviously allows Cam Murray to join that middle forward rotation, which is obviously his best use, but I also hope it allows Liam Martin to play some middle too. Since returning from injury, Martin has come off the bench the last two games for Penrith and played mainly as a middle forward, providing legspeed and hard hitting later in games. It’s also a role he excelled in during his best period of club footy, which to me was the back end of 2021, when Kurt Capewell started for Penrith and Martin came on later. I don’t know if Martin would’ve made my final side, I still would’ve liked to have seen Haumole Olakau’atu, but I’m not disgusted at this call.
Finally on NSW, there’s been several tomes written about the battle between Jarome Luai and Nicho Hynes for the five eighth role. It seems pretty clear to me that Freddy is picking, again, based on 2021, a series where Luai was part of a vibrant left side with Latrell and To’o, but with Hynes being on the bench that rope is shorter, and a Game I loss could spell mass changes.
As for Hynes being the utility, I like his legitimate multi-positional value, but I’m always scared at how Freddy uses his bench utilities (see: he doesn’t). Throwing on Stephen Crichton, an outside back, with five minutes to go and asking him to win the game is a foolish non-strategy. At least with Hynes, I’m hoping there’s a plan to bring him on earlier and see what he offers, but all outcomes are in play with Fittler.
Shifting to Queensland now, I don’t think there were as many points of contention regarding the Maroons lineup, with a couple of key decisions almost being made my force rather than choice by Billy Slater.
Let’s start with the biggest talking point in the Maroons side to me, and that’s the fullback spot. I had Kalyn Ponga in my Maroons side, mainly for the traditional blah blah values of incumbency and all that, and maybe I was sold a little bit by that dazzling performance he put on for the Knights two weeks ago, but I also think back to his maestro performance in the decider last year and I just couldn’t ignore him.
Reece Walsh though, has been in irresistible form for Brisbane, and I did write last week that it was effectively a coin flip and if you asked me tomorrow I probably would’ve swapped them back around again.
I do wonder if Billy Slater was spooked by Ponga suffering another head knock on the weekend, one he brushed off and returned to play later in the game after passing a HIA, factoring in the brutality of Origin and Ponga’s checkered recent history with head injuries.
Still though, whatever the validations, it opens up the door to one of the more highly anticipated Origin debuts in recent memory in Reece Walsh, one that was stolen from us two years ago on Origin eve due to a hamstring injury, a debut that would’ve made Walsh the youngest Maroon since Ben Ikin in 1995.
Walsh is one of the league’s most dazzling playmakers, a player capable of igniting any fixture, like a lone spark dancing into the tinderbox that is Suncorp stadium, sending thousands of adoring fans ablaze. His carefree style, willingness to chance his hand and put his body on the line, and a temperament that defies his infantile career, all make for a compelling player and one that in theory should take to the Origin stage with effortless ease.
The other big storyline in the backs is the axing of Maroons stalwart Dane Gagai, a player who carries an almost mythic aura around him whenever the spirits of Origin abound. Gagai has been a Queensland regular since half the current squad were in primary school (don’t fact check that), with his consistent Queensland performances and catalogue of crucial tries completely disconnected from whatever club form he was carrying into the fixture.
The sense around this Queensland side is marrying form with future, which sounds like a novel concept in theory, a real “no shit” idea, but the mantra of “pick and stick” is so ingrained into the Queensland lore it doesn’t even matter that this side hasn’t truly been that so called “boys club” for several years now. The Maroons have evolved and changed in the last 4-5 years, all while still picking up series wins along the way against more fancied Blues sides.
To quote friend of the newsletter, ABC writer Nick Campton…
Slater's side is brimming with youth, upside and the tantalising possibility of a bright future. David Fifita has been recalled after hitting the kind of form that makes him worth a million dollars…
The future is not just approaching for Queensland, it is here already because Slater has run towards it. For this match, at least, form is king.
You can read Campo’s Origin side piece here.
I was searching for a way to get Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow into the Queensland side, although admittedly I settled for chucking him on the wing and retaining Gagai because I tried to maintain some veteran presence and I wasn’t totally convinced at Murray Taulagi’s 2023 form.
Slater clearly has no such doubts, picking an exuberant backline featuring both young up and coming stars, and while Taulagi’s form might have dimmed from the heights of last season, what Cowboy’s hasn’t?
This Queensland backline possesses frightening speed and a youthful brashness without being too much. Playing shackle-free football is a mindset that carries young players far, and being able to enter this arena with the confidence of the coach should mentally free up this band of bullish wunderkinds to play expressive and expansive footy.
There really isn’t much more to discuss with Queensland, especially in the rest of the spine, as the quartet of Cameron Munster, Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Hunt and Harry Grant pick themselves.
I do want to touch on the front row rotation though. When I picked my Queensland side I didn’t have Lindsay Collins because I wasn’t sure about his form amidst the Roosters overall struggles, but Slater clearly wasn’t worried, so fine.
However, I also didn’t have Titans enforcer Mo Fotuaika in my side, which I’m beginning to think was an oversight, as MoFo has been incandescent for the Titans this season, in a sea of unbridled chaos. The forgotten third wheel in a forward pack that includes Maroons stars in Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and David Fifita, Fotuaika has put together his best and most consistent season to date, in my mind eclipsing the form that actually saw him picked for State of Origin the other year.
The Queensland pack is built on absorbing the initial sting and then unleashing a horde of rabid and feral caged hogs once the game opens up and the Blues forwards tire. If the team holds form, all of Reuben Cotter, Tino and Jai Arrow will be entering the fray post the opening fracas, once the game has “settled down” and become more of a grinding battle of attrition instead of the initial fireworks and cartwheeling limbs from dizzying big hits.
Reuben Cotter, the prototypical modern day front rower, lacking in size but possessing tremendous agility and speed, not to mention just enough hitting power to invade a small country on his own with his low centre of gravity, figures to be a key piece for the Maroons. We saw how impactful Cotter was in Origin I last year, before a hamstring injury robbed him of the rest of the series. I really like Cotter’s impact off the bench in that no nonsense hard running middle style. His speed figures to cause problems for a NSW pack that might be a genuine middle short, depending on how long someone like Pangai lasts.
I’m also happy for Tom Gilbert to be rewarded for his form with the Dolphins by being included in this side, albeit in the second row rather than at lock forward, where he’s excelled this season.
Gilbert isn’t a numpty on the edge though, starting his NRL career with the Cowboys as an edge forward, partly out of necessity due to the embarrassment of riches the Cowboys had through the middle with the likes of Jason Taumalolo, Reuben Cotter and Jordan McLean.
I will be intrigued to see how Queensland use Jai Arrow, though. Capable of starting games at prop, lock and second row, his primary use this season has been off the interchange bench as a hybrid forward filling into the South Sydney forward rotation wherever he’s needed. He becomes a really interesting chess piece for Slater to use.
David Fifita is one of the form edge forwards and a star of the game, one who plays 80 minutes regularly, but Arrow could spell him for a short burst. He can also rest Tom Gilbert, another hybrid who can play both middle and edge, allowing for some real flexibility with Queensland, although if I had to guess, given the makeup of the rest of the Queensland pack, both Arrow and Gilbert will primarily see time out on the edge.
When it comes to State of Origin though, if there’s one thing I’m confident that I know, it’s that I know absolutely nothing.
There’s just the right amount of mystery, intrigue, smokescreens, injury clouds, black magic, clairvoyance, charlatanism and PASHUN all floating around in this cauldron of insanity.
None of this chat matters next Wednesday when two large men collide in the opening exchanges on the hallowed turf of rugby league heartland, Adelaide Oval.
Mate versus mate.
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