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The system is broken
The heir apparent has been poisoned on his way to the throne
The second Nathan Cleary felt that pop in the back of his hamstring mere days after Origin I, the media machine immediately kicked into overdrive, positing every eligible man under the sun as his replacement for NSW halfback for the remainder of the State of Origin series.
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Adam Reynolds and Mitchell Moses were both floated as alternatives to return to the Origin arena from the wilderness, but one man would have been the unbackable favourite right up until 6pm on Sunday night.
Debuting in Origin I and playing a forgettable 12 minutes in the unfamiliar position of right centre, substituting for the HIA-bound Tom Trbojevic, Hynes (along with Nathan Cleary) would go on to miss a pivotal tackle on Cameron Munster in the lead up to what would be the match winning try to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.
But this isn’t about that.
It’s pretty clear from the way the game played out that Brad Fittler either wasn’t planning on using Hynes unless forced to (which eventuated), or had no idea how to use him.
Due to the circumstances around Trbojevic’s substitution with Tom Flegler being binned for the infraction, NSW were allowed to activate their 18th man, Matt Burton, a half by trade but someone who has won a competition and played Origin in the centres, a more natural replacement than Hynes for Trbojevic.
It’s possible Fittler didn’t know he was allowed to activate Burton, but more likely he felt guilted into playing Hynes given the buildup to his selection and his form over the last 18 months for Cronulla, despite having no familiarity with the position.
But this isn’t about that.
The “selection circus” as Fittler himself described it around NSW’s suddenly vacant halfback slot was always going to turn larger than the spot itself, with a bevy of options to pick from and a rabid general public waiting at the doors for the choice, a bit like Homer Simpson’s coworkers waiting for him to do something stupid.
The actual debate over who the Blues should have gone with at halfback is, to me anyway, very interesting and not at all an open and shut case. Each option presents their own strengths.
Adam Reynolds is in some of the best form of his career and knows every blade of Lang Park.
Mitch Moses is the closest stylistic match to Nathan Cleary with his elite kicking game, his game management skills and his big match experience.
Nicho Hynes is the reigning Dally M medallist, has been around the squad for a couple of years now, and has been the driving force behind a Cronulla side fighting for top four status.
But this isn’t about that.
What this is about is the perceived inconsistencies in the NSW selection process and the flaws in whatever system they purport to follow.
In rugby league, we’re always looking for the next big thing. Heir apparents are littered throughout the sport as we look to bridge gaps between era and usher in a new dawn.
The idea of a line of succession is as relevant in State of Origin as anywhere else in Australian sport, especially in key positions where a hierarchy has, seemingly, been established.
Nicho Hynes has been part of the NSW squad for three years now, first appearing in Sky Blue promotional Instagram reels in 2021, and being named 18th man on several occasions before finally making his long awaited Origin debut a few weeks ago.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Hynes had been groomed to be the successor to Cleary should something like, say, a serious hamstring injury arise, opening a spot for a capable replacement to step in.
And yet, now we’re sitting here looking at a NSW squad without Hynes at all, having also lost his utility spot on the bench to Cowboys debutant Reece Robson.
This isn’t an obituary on Hynes’ Origin career. At 26, he has plenty of years left to cement himself in the Blues squad provided the Sharks continue on their current path of consistent finals appearances.
Rather, it’s an indictment on the current regime of the Blues when it comes to succession planning, or a lack thereof.
Hynes was set up to fail, picked without a plan and rushed on in an unfamiliar position, tossed out into the middle of a lake with an anvil strapped to his leg. It’s tough to not feel sorry for one of the game’s more likeable and well-spoken characters as he suffers the ignominy of being dropped unceremoniously.
Looking at the situation clinically, the selection of Mitch Moses as the Blues halfback is perfectly reasonable. He’s rounded into form very well after a slowish start to the season, has been the leader of one of the best teams in the NRL for the better part of 4-5 years now, and possesses a powerful kicking game and dangerous running ability that make him an elite dual threat halfback.
It makes sense to not pick Hynes on the bench again. His positional versatility is somewhat limited to the halves, and fullback in an absolute pinch. Picking Robson allows the Blues a genuine rotational hooking option with the returning Damien Cook, as well as the choice to use Robson as a running middle forward as well.
Nothing is guaranteed or entitled in State of Origin. Hynes himself, after his Game I malaise, has gone on to produce maybe the worst two game stretch of his career, including an anemic performance at home to the Broncos, followed by a shellacking in Melbourne.
Only time will tell whether dropping Hynes for Moses will prove to be the right call. All I do know is Hynes wasn’t put in a position to succeed, predictably struggled, and was unceremoniously dumped, now mired in the “One Origin Appearance” club for the foreseeable future, a club no one wants to be a member of.
Impressions are important, and while I don’t want to read too much into a situation I have zero inside knowledge about, I find it difficult to reconcile the optics of this whole process. I just can’t shake that feeling of the message it sends to prospective future Blues.
Just because you’re in the squad over and over again, it doesn’t mean anything if the guy ahead of you goes down.
Whatever your opinion of the halfback position, it’s clear to me the system is broken.
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