The NSW Blues dug deep in the latter stages of #Origin II to win the 2018 series at ANZ Stadium toni...
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This week, it's all about the Blues as we turn our attention to the key positions of Hooker, Halfback and Five-Eighth.
In the previous few weeks a large part of our focus has been on the men up front laying the foundations and the outside backs taking a share of the workload. Whilst these will always be key factors in the battle for territory, what happens if neither team is prepared to give an inch and field position ends up equal?
The generals, game managers, orchestrators, play-makers will inevitably have the last say.
These days, the men working out of dummy half are just as important as the halves. They have become the focal point of any team's attack and the best are able to control the tempo of the game whilst still having to provide quality service and be strong in defence.
For the halves, their main job descriptions remain mostly the same. Being able to steer their team around the park is paramount and a strong kicking game is all-important in the battle for field position. Beyond this, they become the men calling for the ball when the game is on the line trying to nail the big play.
For the Maroons, they have three of the greatest of all time. Johnathan Thurston is expected to return from a calf injury as early as next week, well in time for the series opener in a little over a month. He will again join forces with his great mates Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. The trio have combined to win four out of the five series they have started in together since 2012 and the one they did lose, Cronk was missing for over half of game one after suffering a broken arm and game two.
With the Maroons orchestrators locked in, we focus solely on the Blues this week.
INCUMBENT - ROBBIE FARAH - After a below-par series last year and amidst the dramas around his then Tigers contract, Coach Laurie Daley was adamant he would have no problem picking his vice-captain from reserve grade if that be the case, such has been his contribution to the jersey through his 16 game Origin career. Obviously, that scenario hasn't eventuated but major questions still remain around his selection this year. Upon moving to the Rabbitohs, Farah has been relegated to the bench where he is averaging just 44 minutes a game. Whilst age isn't always an issue, being thrown back into the Origin furnace after a major reduction in game time where he'd be expected to play the 80 minutes would come as a shock to any 33 year old body. On the plus side, his 4 try assists for the year are equal to any other of the rakes in contention and his left foot kick out of dummy half will always be an ace up his sleeve.
RECALLED - PETER WALLACE - After a mid-season switch to the hooking position last year, Wallace has found a new lease on his footballing life. In hindsight he's always had all the attributes to make a quality number nine. Tough as nails in defence, a good pass off the deck and the ability to kick out of acting half give him all the components. Has been strong this year despite the Panthers recent struggles and is racking up 37 tackles a game and currently leads the comp for one on one tackles with 36 for the year. If selected, would have four games of Origin experience to draw from, albeit his last was some eight years ago. No doubt he would do a solid job, but given the direction Coach Daley has taken in recent years, picking the 31 year old now wouldn't exactly be a step to the future.
ROOKIE - NATHAN PEATS - At 26, Peats has been knocking on the door for a couple of years now and with three City jerseys to his name has earned his chance to don the sky blue. Sharp around the ruck always providing quality service, the Titans rake returned from injury last weekend and hasn't missed a beat in his two games back. A real leader of line-speed in defence and a tireless worker in the middle as evidenced by his 54 tackles against the Sharks pack on Saturday night. Deserves his chance.
INCUMBENTS - JAMES MALONEY & MATT MOYLAN - After playing the opening two games of last year's series at Five-Eighth and Fullback respectively, an injury to Adam Reynolds and the debut of James Tedesco at the back resulted in the pair forming a new look halves combination for game three.
Playing at halfback and calling the shots, Maloney seemingly came of age as an Origin player in that contest guiding his team to victory and picking up man of the match honours along the way. Went on to win his second Premiership later in the year and has started this season just as strongly. For the first time in a very long time, the Blues will go into a series with at least one of their halves locked in.
After being left out of the original game 3 squad last year, Moylan was surprisingly called back into camp as five-eighth once Reynolds went down and handled the role better than most expected. His short ball-playing on the edges looked dangerous all night and ultimately resulted in the break that lead to the match-winner for the Blues. Finished last season as arguably the form player of the competition, but like his Panthers team this year hasn't exactly lived up to expectations. Looks no chance of getting the number one jersey back and retaining his spot in the halves looks shaky at best. There's also still major question marks whether he's tough enough for the Origin arena.
RECALLED - MITCHELL PEARCE & ADAM REYNOLDS - The two names on everyone's lips here seem to be Pearce (yes-again) and Reynolds.
Firstly, I have no problem going on the record as saying I was an advocate for Pearce to wear the jersey for as long as he did. Simply, he was the best halfback in New South Wales and probably still is, but for whatever reason he just couldn't quite transfer it to the Origin arena. Yes, he's been in good form. Yes, he seems a more mature person off the field. But also yes, he has only 4 Origin victories to his name from 15 attempts and 0 series wins.
Reynolds is probably more deserving of a recall after only relinquishing his jersey through injury. His biggest strength is obviously his kicking game and with Origin being such a territorial battle there's no doubt an on-song Reynolds boot acts as a major weapon. Unfortunately for him, the two games he played last year were in a beaten side and whilst he was solid, didn't bring his absolute best to the table.
ROOKIE - BLAKE AUSTIN - After being the name on everyone's lips a couple of years ago the Raiders pivot is somewhat a forgotten man in selection discussions. Much of this is possibly because of the more controlled roll he's playing for his club these days. Two years ago he was an out and out runner of the football and an extremely dangerous one at that. Whilst he still has 17 tackle busts and 3 tries to his name this year to prove he's still a danger to any defensive line, his ability to ball-play both short to his lead runners and pass out the back for the likes of Wighton and ‘Leipana' to do their thing has been an underrated component to the well-oiled green machine for the best part of 18 months now. His kicking game has also improved, he's tough and aggressive on both sides of the ball and he's ready to rock & roll in a sky blue jersey.
THE BOLTER - CODY WALKER - While Reynolds has been much talked about for another Blues jersey, his halves partner in the cardinal and myrtle could be looming as the real wildcard in this selection race. The Casino junior is streaking the field of those in contention in all the key stats this year with 25 tackle busts, 11 line-breaks (comp leader), 7 line-break assists and 10 try assists to his name. The beauty of Walker is his ability to play to a structure, but also know when to deviate from the plan and play what he sees in front of him. Sounds like a simple thing, but it's become quite rare among modern day halves. Looks set for a well-deserved Country jersey in the upcoming representative round and while that fixture hasn't been a true selection trial for some time, a stand-out performance could have Coach Daley contemplating a major selection shock.