Wests Tigers v Sea Eagles preview
3 hours ago | Tim Costello
With less than one round of footy left to play, we take a look at how the New South Wales Blues are shaping up ahead of Coach Brad Fittler's team selection, whilst also throwing in few potential bolters.
FULLBACK - Reigning Brad Fittler Medallist James Tedesco will be the first player picked in the Blues squad this year and not because he'll be wearing the number one jersey. With seven Origin caps now to his name, Tedesco enjoyed a breakout series last year with 2 tries, 2 try-assists, 3 line-breaks, 25 tackle busts and an average 167 metres. His strong running game gave the Maroons defenders nightmares and that was when he came into camp after a somewhat slow start to his career in Roosters colours. This year, he's firing on all cylinders, is in Dally M contention and was labelled by club Coach Trent Robinson a few weeks ago - the best player in the game today. Looks primed for another huge series.
WINGERS - One of many new faces in the Blues squad last year, Josh Addo-Carr stamped himself as one of the premier wingers in the game scoring twice and forming a dynamic left edge partnership with Latrell Mitchell. Has been in good form again this year with 7 tries to his name and if anything should be even better in this year's series after bulking up a bit in the pre-season to help when carrying the ball out of trouble. Looks a lock to again line up on the left flank.
Who lines up on the right flank still remains unclear with Tom Trbojevic out of action with a troublesome hamstring injury since round 4. He is listed to make a return in round 12, just six days prior to the series opener so don't rule him out completely. Coach Fittler did say it was unlikely he'd be picked with no football under his belt at the time, but there's been a little water flow under the bridge since then with a number of right side players now unavailable. It may cause the Blues brains trust to roll the dice with Trbojevic if he can get close to full fitness.
Most have expected Blake Ferguson to be the man to take up the roll after enjoying an exceptional year during the Roosters run to the title last season. An off-season move to the Eels didn't halt his momentum, but an injury picked up in round 5 has seen him hit a bit of a flat spot since returning in Round 7. Whilst Fittler has said Ferguson's past indiscretions wouldn't rule him out of contention, the Blues coach does place a big emphasis on the team's values and you get the sense Ferguson's football would have to be near perfect to earn a recall to the Blues setup.
Other contenders are Nick Cotric who was a part of the extended squad last year and is also being considered as an option at centre, Campbell Graham who enjoyed a lightning start to the year scoring 5 tries in the opening 4 games but has slowed a bit since and Daniel Tupou who is a part of the Roosters all-star left edge. That move would likely see Addo-Carr shifted to the right.
CENTRES - Another of Fittler's baby blues last year, Latrell Mitchell stamped himself as the best centre in the game throughout last year's series scoring two powerful tries and getting the better of rival Will Chambers. His football has only gotten better since, winning a premiership with the Roosters before earning a Kangaroos debut. Has been one of the stars of the season to date despite off field distractions surrounding his future and you get the feeling he will relish getting into camp with the blues and bunkering down in preparation for another stellar series. A lock at left centre.
Right centre appears to be still up for grabs following the demotion at club level of incumbent Blues centre James Roberts a few weeks ago. Roberts has been named in the reserves list for the Broncos this week, but it's more likely he'll turn out for feeder club Wynnum Manly in the Intrust Super Cup on Sunday. Either way, he'll need to play the house down for his name to be read out come Sunday night.
That seemingly leaves Newcastle's Jesse Ramien, veteran Josh Morris and Nick Cotric to put their hand up with a big game in round 11.
After a slow start to the season in which he was starved of quality ball, Ramien has hit his straps in recent weeks amidst the Knights run of good form. Breaking an average 5 tackles per game, has the strong and robust running game made for the Origin arena, but does have the odd error in his game which is probably the only concern at this stage,
Many assumed Morris had retired from representative football, but it was only twin brother Brett who officially announced his retirement from state and national duty, Josh had just assumed his days in sky blue were behind him following the influx of young stars last year. He's since put his hand up for selection and has been in fine touch for the Sharks this year, but did come up with a bad one on one miss on Brendon Elliott last week which was a worrying sign considering his defence has long been considered his greatest strength.
Cotric meanwhile, suits up at right centre again this week following an impressive first game there against the Rabbitohs in round 10. Is reportedly being considered at centre and another big game on Saturday will only enhance his chances. Looks a good chance to line up on the right edge in some capacity.
Mentioned as a potential utility option off the bench, Jack Wighton could be a bolter to line up at centre. Has had an impressive move from fullback to five-eighth this season, but played plenty of football in the centres early in his career. Renowned for being a big hitter when jamming in defence which could be exactly what the Blues need. With Kalyn Ponga and Cameron Munster looking to wreak havoc down that side of the park, a Wighton special in defence may just set them back on their heels a notch.
FIVE-EIGHTH - Whilst Fittler and his Blues committee won't officially rule James Maloney out of contention, his one game suspension this week appears to have spelled the death knell on his 12 game Origin career. While we're on that though, instead of everyone cruelling his form this year, how about we pay tribute to one of the few men to come out the other side of the Maroons dominance and taste Origin success as he did last year.
That leaves his number six jersey a race in two - Luke Keary and Cody Walker.
Keary was considered a lock for a halves role in the early rounds this year and probably still is. A shadow player throughout last year's series, that experience seemingly catapulted him to a new level in the back half of the year and extended to Grand Final night where he picked up the Clive Churchill Medal in his second premiership. A big match player who started this year on fire and has retained the level of form to earn an Origin debut.
The form of Walker right now is proving irresistible and could cause the Blues hierarchy to shift Keary into the number seven. The instinctive genius has set the competition alight leading the try scoring tally with 11, whilst setting up 8 and having a hand in a number of others. More likely though, he'll fill the utility role where he can enter the park and roam around looking for opportunities. The combination he's struck up with Damien Cook is lethal and when Cook begins jumping out of dummy half looking for tired defenders, having a fresh Walker alongside him could be a masterstroke.
HALFBACK - As always, the most contentious selection in the New South Wales side.
When Brad Fittler picked Nathan Cleary last year, it appeared a long-term selection and playing a strong hand in the series victory only cemented that. Twelve months on and the Panthers are sitting at the foot of the ladder and Cleary along with Maloney are wearing the brunt of that with media pressure intensifying after every loss for the Blues to come up with a new scrum base pairing.
Truth is he's not playing a whole lot different to last year. He actually didn't produce a single attacking stat in last year's series, but no one seemed to notice that then. He's never been the player to light the attacking spark in a team. He's the player that gets his team around the park, kicks well, feeds quality ball to his outside men, takes a hit for his team when he needs to and rises to the fore in clutch situations with his superior goal-kicking and field-goals. He's also strong in his effort areas off the ball which has been mentioned by Fittler a number of times. Received a much needed jolt of confidence on Thursday night helping to steer his team to a much needed win.
I fully expect him to get picked, but in the event media pressure wins out, a recall to either Adam Reynolds or Mitchell Pearce appear the next best options.
Reynolds didn't do a whole lot wrong in his two games in 2016, only injury prevented him from lining up in a third that year. Has been in strong form for the table topping Rabbitohs and seems to be relishing his role under Wayne Bennett. The biggest ace up his sleeve has always been his kicking game which has again been on show this year. A master of forcing repeat sets, Reynolds has 15 forced drop-outs to his name (Cleary and Pearce have 16 between them). Would no doubt be a solid option and has club combinations with Cook and Walker in his favour.
The form of Pearce over the last four weeks following a slow start to the season has been exceptional and arguably amongst the best in his career. His 4 tries and 5 try-assists have helped the Knights charge up the ladder. Interesting to note that his form reversal coincided with him focusing on his own game rather than worrying about the rest of the team. Has he ever adopted that mindset in his disappointing Origin career? With just 5 wins from his 18 Origin games, Pearce's cards had seemingly been marked, but he's matured at a rapid rate since moving to the Hunter and another big game against his former club on Friday night could see him handed yet another chance.
PROPS - Considered a lock for a spot up front, David Klemmer has been outstanding this year for the Knights, leading the go forward with an average 174 metres a game. Has played every game for the sky blues since debuting in game one of 2015 and picked up the Brad Fittler Medal in 2017. Was only a last minute selection for the series opener last year, but ended up getting his first starting birth at state level and led from the front laying a strong platform in the opening minutes. Expected to rip and tear again this year.
A debutante last year, Paul Vaughan is hotly tipped to get the other starting spot after being a solid addition for the Blues throughout the series. Started the season in strong fashion for the Dragons this year, but has hit a slight flat spot amongst the club's poor run in recent weeks. Sure to be in the squad somewhere, but Fittler might be looking for a big game against the Sharks on Sunday to cement that starting spot.
Other contenders up front include Jordan McLean who was widely tipped for last year's series before a foot injury ruled him out of contention and the bolter who's wreaking havoc for the Broncos, Payne Haas.
Returning from injury for the Cowboys late last year, McLean hit the ground running and retained his place in Mal Meninga's Kangaroos side at season's end. He's been strong up front again this year with his tough and clever runs. Has deceptive footwork and a quick play the ball which often creates momentum for his team.
Haas looks set to be one of the youngest and most inexperienced players to earn an Origin debut with just 9 first grade games to his name. Has been enormous since returning from a club suspension for the Broncos in round 5 punching out some big numbers and playing long minutes. He was already knocking on the door before last week's performance against the Roosters. Against the Premiers, he ran for a massive 221 metres, broke 8 tackles and offloaded twice to just about rip the door off the hinges for selection.
HOOKER - Pushing Cameron Smith as the number one hooker in the game today, Damien Cook has only gotten better since being one of the Blues best players last year. Picked on the back of a high defensive work rate and his blistering running game, Cook has added more layers to his game this year. Keeping the defence in two minds, he always jumps out of dummy half with the ball in two hands and is creating a lot more with his 12 try-assists the most in the competition. No one will come into the series in better form.
SECOND-ROWERS - After lining up to start all three games last year, skipper Boyd Cordner and Tyson Frizell look certain to be the second-row duo again for game one.
Cordner has been his typical hard-nosed self for the Roosters again this year. Runs the underrated lines vital to the Roosters and soon to be Blues left-edge attack and always puts his hand up to take the tough carries when required to inspire his team.
Frizell had a nasty injury to start the year, but showed his toughness to come back and rip into opposition defensive lines with his hard running carries. Was found wanting for pace a bit last week when Kalyn Ponga tore his side of the field to shreds which is of some concern, but he's shown his will to lift another a gear in the Origin arena and only missed two tackles throughout the entire series last year.
LOCK - Now with six Origin caps to his name, Jake Trbojevic played the opening two games of last year's series before earning his first starting birth in game three which is where he's expected to line up with no Jack De Belin in this year's setup. There have been some calls to leave Jake on the bench where he was so good in the first two games last year coming on after 20 odd minutes to play the remainder of the match. He's earned his starting spot though and his copybook tackling style is made for Origin's opening exchanges.
INTERCHANGE - The man many are pushing to get the starting spot at lock, Cameron Murray will be every bit - if not more - effective coming off the bench. Has the footwork and leg speed to really wreak havoc as Queensland's forwards begin to tire. Imagine him and Cody Walker entering the park around the same time pushing up around Damien Cook in support.
Arguably one of the most underrated forwards in the game, Dale Finucane is a good chance to finally crack a spot in the Blues squad. Rugged and tough, Finucane packs plenty of punch both with and without the ball. Has plenty of big match experience playing in five Grand Finals and has the ability to force an error with his strong hits in defence.
With Haas and McLean also pushing for bench spots, it leaves incumbents Angus Crichton and Tariq Sims needing big games this weekend to keep their spots. Neither have been bad this year and Crichton probably had his best game of the season against the Broncos last week, but competition is hot for spots in the 17 in a good sign for Coach Fittler.
Finally, the utility role looks to be down to incumbent Tyrone Peachey and the flying Cody Walker.
Peachey has been down on form at the Titans this year coming up with some errors at crucial times. If anything, he's probably a victim of trying too hard to create things in a struggling team instead of just playing his natural game where he thinks run first and then just plays off instinct. He's a favourite of the coach which may save him, but looks unlikely given the form of others.
Enough has been said about Walker. He's the hottest player in the game right now and can't do anymore to earn selection.
1. James Tedesco
2. Josh Addo-Carr
3. Latrell Mitchell
4. Josh Morris
5. Nick Cotric
6. Luke Keary
7. Nathan Cleary
8. David Klemmer
9. Damien Cook
10. Paul Vaughan
11. Boyd Cordner
12. Tyson Frizell
13. Jake Trbojevic
14. Cody Walker
15. Cameron Murray
16. Dale Finucane
17. Payne Haas