Are the Maroons smart enough to realise Cherry-Evans is the future?

Tim Gore Columnist

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    If Kevin Walters and his fellow selectors truly care about the future of the Queensland State of Origin side, beyond the current campaign, they must now do what they should have been doing since 2015 and select Daly Cherry-Evans.

    It’s a total freaking no brainer.

    Why haven’t they? Well, they’ve been too busy winning with the best side that Origin has ever seen.

    They’ve won ten out of the last 11 series and the team – with a group of ageing champions at the helm – are even a chance to steal this one.

    However, it is the responsibility of the coach, selectors and the side’s leadership to not just win the series at hand but also to ensure the squad is constantly refreshed by breaking in the next generation – the ones who will continue on when the old stars inevitably retire.

    And that is particularly the case when it comes to the key position players.

    Sometimes, like Darren Lockyer and Andrew Johns, players choose their time to depart and go out on top. Others bow out losers – like Paul Gallen, like Nate Myles.

    Johnathan Thurston has bowed out of State of Origin a winner with a busted shoulder. At the age of 34 he’s had a great run. A veteran of 37 State of Origin appearances, he sits only behind the co-aged Cam Smith as the most capped Origin player of all time.

    Johnathan Thurston of the Queensland Maroons (right) and teammate Corey Parker celebrate winning

    (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

    Thurston has only missed one Origin game since he debuted for the Maroons in 2005 – and that was Game 1 this year.

    But now he’s gone and Queensland have to figure out what to do without him.

    And fast.

    Thurston’s Origin career has spanned the most dominant period by either side in the series’ history. A large part of the reason for that is how many great players have converged at the one time, and then stayed together.

    Just look at this:

    Name Origin games Origin games 2006 -present All time QLD rank
    Cam Smith 41 34 #1
    Johnathan Thurston 37 34 #2
    Darren Lockyer 36 15 #3
    Petero Civoneceva 33 18 #6
    Nate Myles 32 32 #7
    Greg Inglis 30 30 #9
    Sam Thaiday 29 29 #10
    Darius Boyd 28 28 #11
    Steve Price 28 11 #11
    Billy Slater 28 23 #11
    Justin Hodges 24 21 #16
    Brent Tate 23 17 #19
    Matt Scott 22 22 #21
    Cooper Cronk 21 21 #25
    Corey Parker 19 16 #30
    Matt Gillett 17 17 #34
    368/595 (61.85%)

    That’s right, you read correctly. Just 16 players have taken 61.85 per cent of all of the Queensland Origin caps on offer since the beginning of 2006. 368 of the 595 possible spots have been taken by the above 16 players.

    Just to give you an idea of how remarkable that is, the 17 most capped New South Wales players of all time have played 364 games combined. That’s one more player for four fewer caps.

    It has been on the back of this settled side that the Maroon dynasty has been built. During that period the names of the players wearing the 1, 6, 7 and 9 jerseys have virtually been static. The change from Darren Lockyer to Cooper Cronk was seamless, with the Storm halfback serving a two-series apprenticeship on the Maroon bench before Lockyer’s retirement.

    However, even after seeing how successful that model was, they have not followed it with Cherry-Evans – in spite of the advancing years of both Cronk and Thurston.

    While those within the inner sanctum of the Maroons deny it black and blue, it seems to many that the Manly halfback has been exiled.

    Why?

    Robbie Farah holds down Daly Cherry-Evans in Origin 2 (Photo: AAP)

    (Photo: AAP)

    Firstly, the majority of the blame for Queensland’s one series defeat in the last 11 – 2014 – seems to have been laid at the feet of Cherry-Evans. When Cronk was injured early in Game 1 of that series, Cherry-Evans had to step up from his utility role off the bench to playing No.7.

    The Maroons failed to adjust and they went down 12-4, and then also lost Game 2 by 6-4, losing their first series in nine years.

    Although the side still featured superstars Thurston, Smith, Hodges, Inglis and Slater – who at that point had a combined 118 State of Origin games between them – somehow the majority of the blame has seemingly been laid at the feet of Cherry-Evans, who had only played two games at that stage.

    That’s bizarro-world stuff. It’s like blaming a first-term parliamentarian for the failures of the cabinet.

    Secondly, it is a possibility that the established Queensland players don’t think he’s cool enough to be in their club. Writing in the Fairfax press, Andrew Webster said on the matter:

    “The belief that [The Queensland players] have a set against him is too strong… it’s true that he doesn’t snugly fit into a Maroons culture and set-up that has been in place for years.

    For that reason it wouldn’t surprise if Cherry-Evans – despite his form – was overlooked for the decider at Suncorp Stadium on July 12, although the word is he’s “back in the mix”.”

    There’s a huge problem with this. As we’ve seen above, that “Maroons culture and set up that has been in place for years” is owned by players who have now been dropped, retired or are just about to retire. The idea that a culture of cool could still block the very best playmaker Queensland has in the wings is outrageous – especially if that “culture and set up” claims to actually care about what happens to Queensland fortunes once they retire.

    They need to come to terms with the fact that their time as the kings of the schoolyard is nearing the end. Leaving their side in the best possible health should be their number one priority. They are merely caretakers of the jerseys, not their owners.

    Further, the success of Queensland in the future has to be a very high priority for Kevin Walters. He cannot possibly allow such schoolyard popularity issues to overwhelm his role and judgement.

    Thirdly, in 2015, Cherry-Evans backflipped on his deal with the Titans to stay with the Sea Eagles, which saw him become one of the most hated men in the game. However, then-CEO David Smith had inexplicably left that loophole open – DCE did nothing against the rules, and nothing other players had not done before him.

    Further, as it was a Queensland club, there was a suggestion in some quarters that he had somehow been disloyal to his state. I find that idea very odd, as I’m not sure the Broncos have ever been worried one bit about helping the Titans – or any other Gold Coast incarnation – be successful.

    I recently met Daly Cherry-Evans one-on-one and had a chat. As he plays for the Sea Eagles, I was sort of hoping to dislike him. I was sort of hoping that he would be a tosser.

    Imagine my disappointment when I discovered he is an extremely personable, articulate, polite and lovely guy.

    But he is. I just have to accept it. So should you.

    Haters are going to hate, but in reality there is no good reason to.

    Yet when Kevin Walters was first asked who he’d bring in to replace Thurston, Cherry-Evans was not included among the four names he brought up.

    Cherry-Evans’ superb showing against the Sharks last weekend all of a sudden has Walters backpedalling to say DCE is in contention.

    But he shouldn’t just be in contention, he should be a lay-down misere for the role. The stats clearly bear that out. Just look how he compares against Kevvie’s other contenders:

    Age NRL games Origin games Try assists Line break assists Trys Line breaks 40/20s
    Daly Cherry-Evans 28 160 6 13 12 2 2 2
    Michael Morgan 25 115 7 6 2 5 6 1
    Moses Mbye 23 71 0 4 4 1 3 0
    Corey Norman 26 136 0 4 2 3 3 2
    Cameron Munster 22 56 0 5 7 0 4 0

    Cherry-Evans this time will not be replacing the ultimate structure of Cronk, he’ll be replacing the creative, running flair of Thurston.

    While no one could ever replace the great JT, DCE has the credentials when it comes to putting teammates through holes and playing what he sees. He’s twice as good as the best of his opponents in that regard. Further, he has six games experience in the Origin arena.

    While his superior attacking stats are to be expected, it is his defence where DCE really adds unexpected value to the Queensland side.

    Tackles Missed tackles Missed tackle percentage
    Cooper Cronk 14 1.3 9.3%
    Daly Cherry-Evans 25 1.8 7.2%
    Michael Morgan 13 2.6 20%
    Moses Mbye 21 2.7 12.85%
    Corey Norman 16 1 6.25%
    Cameron Munster 18 2.2 12.2%

    Of all of the options for the No.6 jersey, Cherry-Evans is clearly the best tackler. He is used to being run at all day but, unlike the likes of James Maloney, DCE is no turnstile. Far from it. He is a great defender.

    In a game where lots believe the Maroons will have to really step up in defence if they are to be a chance, Cherry-Evans comes with great credentials. In his six Origin appearances, he has missed just five tackles.

    For the best part of a decade, the Queensland side has revelled in success. It weren’t broke so they didn’t fix it. They kept playing the winning combinations. And why not? They won. Lots.

    However, their ongoing regeneration of the side was allowed to lapse as a result. The bloodletting after the Origin 1 thrashing has seen the greenest Maroon side in a long time.

    They are now desperate to pull off a great escape to claim their 11th series in 12 years and they must do it without arguably the greatest player to have ever laced up a boot.

    Their unbelievable fortune is that they have a superb, long-term replacement – with Origin experience! – standing by. Now they’ve just got to be smart enough to select him.

    All of NSW should be hoping that they aren’t.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.