Brad Fittler has shown he has the steel and determination to make massive changes to a losing side, but can he apply the same philosophy to change a winning team and break through a 17-year drought?
NSW has not won a decider at Suncorp Stadium since Andrew Johns inspired the Blues to a come-from-behind series win in 2005.
Fittler proved his critics wrong in designing a resounding 44-12 win in Origin II after seven changes to the side that lost to the Maroons 16-10 in the series opener.
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But the Blues only found themselves in a decider at Suncorp two years ago after beating Queensland in game two, beating 20-14 by a Maroon side that has been called the worst on paper in Origin history.
A decision maker in Brisbane presents the Blues with unique challenges and they can’t just get along with the same team hoping for the same beating they produced in Perth.
In 2020, Fittler kept the exact same side that defeated Queensland 34-10 in game two, but they ended up falling at the final hurdle in front of a parochial crowd in Queensland.
Fittler knows that a decision maker in enemy territory is a different beast and he will need the best possible team to get the job done in Queensland territory.
Latrell Mitchell looms as the biggest potential inclusion if he makes a successful return for South Sydney for game three, but given his lack of match fitness, he’s at risk.
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The 25-year-old has played seven Origins under Fittler and he is the type of player Queensland does not like to play against due to his physicality and aggression.
The Souths star was arguably the best player in last year’s series and despite not having any game time this year, his class would be welcome in the pressure cooker of a Suncorp decider.
Mitchell gives the Blues that competitive fire they need to win on foreign soil, but who he’s replacing is less clear.
It’s nearly impossible to drop Matt Burton after his dream debut in Perth, making Stephen Crichton the man most likely to make way for Mitchell.
Complicating matters further is the expected return of Covid Blues regular and Fittler favorite Jack Wighton.
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Wighton was the Blues’ best player in Origin I, albeit in a losing side, and certainly deserves a spot somewhere in Fittler’s 17, provided he has no lasting effects from his Covid attack.
There’s an old saying, “you need an old dog for a rough road” and they don’t come much harder than a decider at Suncorp Stadium, so Fittler may need his trusted and experienced duo of Wighton and Mitchell for the battle ahead.
Wighton could potentially resume his role on the bench, with Siosifa Talakai making way, but that would leave the Blues short of big men on the pine tree.
Koroisau and Cook’s double hooker combination worked in game two, but is this the best way to play game three?
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Koroisau was strong in the first half, without being spectacular, but it allowed Cook to dominate as Queensland tired in the second half.
Carrying both Cook and Wighton on the bench would be a bold move by Fittler in a decider where big men are historically worth their weight in gold, especially considering the Blues were much better in the middle third of the field in game two.
Now for the radical selection shake-up that could take both Wighton and Mitchell to the centres, with Burton moving to five-eighth and Jarome Luai falling for the decider.
At first glance, it seems like an unnecessary risk for a team that has just put 40 points on the Maroons. The severing of the partnership between Cleary and Luai halves on the one hand seems madness given their success for the club and the state over the past two seasons.
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However, with the exception of a try and a linebreak in Perth, Luai was poor in game two, committing some stupid mistakes and unnecessary penalties.
An incident saw Luai concede a penalty for rubbing the face of a Queensland player on the ground and it led straight into the first half of Cameron Munster trying the following set.
Such poor discipline could be costly if Luai is a repeat offender in Brisbane and could cost the Blues the game and the series.
Dropping Luai, while a brutal call-up would allow Fittler to use Burton’s awesome kick game even more at five-eighth and let the experience and physicality of a Mitchell and Wighton center partnership shape up for the final of the do or die series.
That would allow Fittler to maintain balance on his side, especially on his bench, while Siosifa Talakai kept his spot despite limited opportunities on his debut.
The Blues’ roster further spoils the potential unavailability of star player Payne Haas due to an ankle injury sustained in game two.
Haas is arguably the Blues’ most important forward and with Jake Trbojevic as a prop, it leaves the Blues with a shortage of specialist front-runners.
That could lead to a possible recall for Reagan Campbell-Gillard or Daniel Saifiti, who is expected to return on lap 16.
Whatever the final make-up on his part, Fittler must learn from the mistakes and experience of 2020.
Changing a winning side is a risk, but Fittler has shown that he is a horse-for-course coach, picking the best 17 to get the job done for every competition.
That could mean changing his winning side from Perth to ensure the best combination of 17 players can do what no NSW team has done since 2005 in a decider at Suncorp Stadium and take home the Shield.
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