It all looked so simple for rookie coach Billy Slater, but State of Origin rarely works that way and now the Queensland coach has a big decision to make before Game 2.
Slater is hardly alone either, with Brad Fittler forced to weigh another selection gamble he had no intention of making.
It leaves Slater having to replace a real workhorse in the middle, while Fittler has to hit the ground running after Wighton caused all sorts of problems for the Queensland defense in Origin I.
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BLUES — REPLACING WIGHTON AND THE BIG BENCH CALL
Fortunately for the Blues and Fittler, the answer is relatively simple: All they have to do is look at their couch from Game 1.
While Panthers are in the middle Stephen Crichton was relatively quiet in the 16-10 defeat, the 21-year-old will be a very different prospect starting the game rather than getting off the bench.
Of course, club football doesn’t always translate directly into the same success in the representative arena, but Crichton has already proven himself to be a difference maker for the reigning Prime Ministers.
Take his match-winning intercept last year in the grand final against South Sydney or even more recently his footwork to beat Enari Tuala close to the line against Newcastle on Sunday.
Fittler came under a lot of criticism for leaving Crichton out of the starting position in the first place only to have the last laugh after Wighton’s exploits in Game 1.
But this time, the Blues coach simply has no choice, with Crichton posing a threat on the right side alongside Panthers teammate Nathan Cleary.
Kotoni Staggs will be retained as NSW’s other center after he pledged his allegiance to the Blues after being named in Tonga’s squad for the mid-season test against New Zealand.
Latrell Mitchell could have gotten into calculations but missed this week’s game with the Dragons after testing positive for Covid-19.
The Rabbitohs center had already been sidelined after a serious hamstring injury and Fittler confirmed on Friday night that Mitchell would not be available for selection.
“Latrell is not available,” he told Channel 9†
“I spoke to South Sydney earlier in the week as he had just returned from America and when he came back to Australia he also had Covid-19 so I believe he was quite confused. He’s only had one real session, so Latrell won’t be available.”
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While the decision to promote Crichton to the starting lineup is relatively easy, it also means Fittler must find a new banking utility.
There have already been calls for the Blues coach to do that, even if Wighton was unavailable after Queensland took advantage of Harry Grant’s energy and leg speed through the middle.
Former NSW coach Laurie Daley said last week the utility function should be looked into, leaving Storm speedster Ryan Papenhuyzen emerged as an “inspired selection”.
However, Papenhuyzen was unable to argue for a return to the Origin arena after testing positive for Covid-19 ahead of Melbourne’s clash with Brisbane.
The 24-year-old (knee and hamstring) has been sidelined since Round 9, meaning Fittler would bet on his match fitness ahead of a must-win Game 2.
If the Blues want to reflect the success of the Maroons of Origin I, Apisai Koroisau and Reece Robson could come into calculations for a couch spot.
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While they don’t necessarily provide cover when injuries strike on the outside, the Blues still have plenty of versatile backrowers who could shift to the centers in that scenario.
Koroisau has been in and around the Blues lineup before and knows how to play to the strengths of Blues halves Cleary and Jarome Luai.
“I like the idea of Koroisau,” Braith Anasta said on ‘NRL 360’ earlier this week.
“I think it’s counter-punched for Hunt and Grant, Koroisau and Cook, I think Koroisau even starts the game, you’ve got Cook coming off the bench with an impact or vice versa,” Anasta said.
Robson, on the other hand, has yet to make his NSW debut, but The Daily Telegraphs David Riccio reported last week that he is “in the frame”.
“If you’re talking about getting a difference off the bench or getting some leg speed, Reece Robson has been absolutely sensational for the Cowboys,” said Riccio.
At the moment, however, it seems to be a two-way race for that spot on the bench, with Nicho Hynes and Matt Burton compete for the vacant jersey.
The Daily Telegraphs Phil “Buzz” Rothfield said earlier in the week on “NRL 360” that he texted Fittler asking if Burton would get on the couch.
“I’ll be keeping a close eye on the footy this weekend,” Fittler replied.
However, Rothfield was concerned that Burton may not get another chance to stake his claims for the utility place, and reported that the team may be chosen before he runs out against the Tigers on Sunday.
Both Burton and Hynes are capable of playing at fullback and center as well as the halves, while also filling gaps in the front pack if needed.
Hynes’ Sharks teammate Siosifa Talakaic could be a surprising choice though, with Fittler revealing to Channel 9 that he will “follow very closely” the 25-year-old.
“The great thing about Talakai is that he started out as a back rower and he’s kind of a back rower player and he’s doing a great job,” said Fittler.
“At the start of the season he was in the middle of the field, so we took that into account in the first game. So we’ll be watching him closely.”
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MAROONS – RABBITOH READY FOR RECOVER AFTER COTTER INJURY
As for Queensland, both Slater and Cowboys coach Todd Payten appear to have resigned that Cotter will spend time on the sidelines after injuring his hamstring on Friday night.
Cotter failed to complete North Queensland’s warm-up for the 28-26 win over Manly and is ready for scans to determine the full extent of the injury.
Neither Payten nor Slater are confident that Cotter will be free for next Sunday’s game.
“It will be quite a stretch to get going,” Payten said Friday.
“For a kid his size, he has to rely on speed and strength, and it’s going to really hurt him with the hamstring.”
“We’ll have to wait for Reuben to get scans, but it’s not looking good,” Slater said Channel 9†
“I really feel for him, he’s worked really hard to get his game to where it is today. He was a big part of what Queensland did in that game, so if he doesn’t play he will be sorely missed.”
Should Cotter be banned from Game 2, Jai Arrow is expected to earn an Origin recall, either starting at lock forward or getting off the couch with Patrick Carrigan promoted.
Arrow was fined $35,000 last year and banned from playing for the Maroons in Game 3 last year after violating the NRL’s Covid-19 protocols.
But ahead of Game 1, Slater said the incident played no part in the decision to leave him out of the roster for this year’s series opener.
“100 percent no,” Slater told reporters.
“We have a real luxury in that center forward battle right now. You have to focus on who’s in there, not who isn’t.
“He will have to play for Queensland in the future, I can see that. And he has a great attitude. He is ready to leave if we need him.”
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Queensland will also need to find a winger replacement Xavier Coates (single), with Cowboys flyers Murray Taulagic and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow compete for that spot.
Both were named in Queensland’s expanded roster for Game 1 and while Taulagi is expected to get the nod, he injured his shoulder during Friday night’s game.
“I think he will be fine,” Payten said of Taulagi, who was able to continue playing.
“I was wondering if he’s not good for Origin and he said he was sweet assuming he got picked. He said it was sedated so I’m assuming it was a burner.”
Tabuai-Fidow also had to headbutt and did not return, meaning he would have to go through concussion protocols to place himself in the frame for selection.
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