A tale of two halves: Has Maloney’s move dealt a blow to Pearce’s Origin hopes?

Luis Charalambous Roar Rookie

By Luis Charalambous, Luis Charalambous is a Roar Rookie

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    As the NRL’s player merry-go-round hit superb heights within the last few weeks, questions can’t help being asked about a tournament just over six months away – State of Origin.

    The Sydney Roosters prized signature of Cooper Cronk has forced their halfback of 11 years, Mitchell Pearce, to join the Newcastle Knights. Meanwhile, five-eighth James Maloney has left the Cronulla Sharks to join the Penrith Panthers in a swap with Matt Moylan.

    Pre-season training has only just begun, and neither player has played an official minute with their new club, but in this tale of two halves, Maloney’s move to Penrith may have dealt Pearce an unintentional blow to his 2018 representative hopes.

    Pearce and Maloney together won an NRL premiership with the Sydney Roosters in 2013, and three consecutive minor premierships from that year to 2015. But one honour that’s eluded the halves pairing is a State of Origin series victory.

    Of the six Origin matches they’ve played alongside each other – three in 2013, and three in 2017, they’ve won two, and lost four. Individually, Pearce has played 18 matches with a winning percentage of 27.28 per cent, whereas Maloney has played nine matches with a winning percentage of 33.33 per cent.

    This year, according to the experts, the commentators and every NSW supporter, the Blues were supposed to win the Origin series. After a dominating Game 1 win over the Maroons at Suncorp, the path was laid to turn the tide and begin the NSW dynasty.

    Yet in typical Queensland fashion, they broke the hearts of every Blues supporter by winning the next two games and clinching the shield they weren’t meant to.

    And so the next opportunity for Origin glory begins on June 6, 2018. But will Blues incumbent halves pairing be lining up against the Maroons together in six months’ time?

    Queensland’s dominant halves pairing of Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk won’t be there to steer the ship, and this changing of the guard could be the opportunity for Pearce and Maloney to claim their maiden series win.

    At the end of Round 7 this year, the Roosters and Sharks were third and fourth on the ladder, respectively, justifying Pearce and Maloney’s selection for Game 1.

    But in 2018, the Blues halves will be in completely new circumstances, and it’s Maloney’s move to Penrith that almost secures his spot in the team, at Pearce’s expense.

    Mitchell Pearce Sydney Roosters NRL Rugby League Finals 2017

    (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

    31-year-old two-time premiership winner Maloney will link up with 2017’s highest point-scorer, 20-year-old Nathan Cleary, playing right into the hands of new Blues coach Brad Fittler.

    “Nathan Cleary, he’s the one who actually looks like he handles pressure better than anyone,” Fittler said of the younger Panthers halfback in 2016 after he was rewarded being named in the emerging NSW Blues squad.

    Cleary has been on the rise since his NRL debut in 2016, and pairing with the experienced Maloney for the next three seasons will be a huge benefit to his development.

    “I’m looking forward to playing alongside him and hopefully helping him take his game to the next level,” Maloney said in Penrith’s signing announcement.

    According to Fittler’s right-hand man, former Penrith great Greg Alexander, Cleary’s time in a representative jersey is “just a matter of when it happens.”

    Could Cleary’s time be in 2018? Should Penrith find themselves well placed in the Top 8 come Origin selection time, Maloney and Cleary could be the first club halves pairing selected for the Blues since 2014 (Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson, then at the Bulldogs).

    Cleary’s introduction into Origin football would be made easier being partnered with Maloney, and this makes Maloney indispensable.

    But what about Pearce? He’ll likely be partnering fellow ex-Rooster Connor Watson in the halves in a Newcastle side that has revamped their line-up with experienced signings such as Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Aidan Guerra, and youthful signings such as Kalyn Ponga and Tautau Moga.

    28-year-old Pearce is in his prime, and has to leave a powerful impression at Newcastle in the next four years. But his move was met with immediate criticism from former Blues captain and teammate Paul Gallen.

    Gallen fears that Pearce’s move to Newcastle has put his Origin career in casualty, because he won’t be surrounded by a team filled representative players and premiership winners like the Roosters, or Gallen’s Sharks.

    Paul Gallen Cronulla Sharks NRL Rugby League Finals 2017

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    Responding to Gallen in a press conference, Pearce said “main focus of my decision was firstly happiness, a new opportunity and a new challenge.”

    “All that other stuff takes care of itself, if you’re being the best person you can every day.”

    Pearce’s attitude to his future is the right one. Newcastle, despite new signings, won’t become a premiership contender overnight. But if Pearce continues to play at the level that saw him help the Roosters to the preliminary finals last year, his case for retaining his Origin jersey will strengthen.

    Though, the road towards that has become tricky. If the new-look Newcastle are positioned in the Top 8 ahead of selection for Game 1 next year, Pearce may be hard to overlook.

    On the other hand, the Panthers have played finals football for the last two seasons, and the addition of Maloney vastly improves their chances of winning the premiership. If Maloney and Cleary prove a formidable halves pairing, and Newcastle can’t turn their fortunes around, then the selection writes itself.

    Origin football may be over six months away, but the pre-season player merry-go-round has already whet the appetites of rugby league fans, adding new intrigue to the 2018 season. When it comes to Pearce and Maloney, their best footy may be awaiting us.

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    The Crowd Says (25)

    • December 8th 2017 @ 7:53am
      Sammy said | December 8th 2017 @ 7:53am | ! Report

      Cleary is the future Blues halfback, but I’d be very surprised if they pick Cleary for SOO this year – I’m guessing 2019 is when he’ll get his chance.

    • December 8th 2017 @ 9:18am
      Billy said | December 8th 2017 @ 9:18am | ! Report

      You are basing that all on the theory that Maloney is a given to start in Origin. Maybe they will finally acknowledge that in Origin – where defence matters, he is too much of a liability.

    • December 8th 2017 @ 9:32am
      uglykiwi said | December 8th 2017 @ 9:32am | ! Report

      Pearce will never play SOO again. Its that simple. Doesnt mean he wont be great for Newcastle; as I think he will and he will have a great finish to his career up there. But Origin for him is gone; his only chance is injury or a complete loss of form from Cleary. Cleary will be the half for the next 3-4 years…..

      Maloney….. he may play 5/8 again at origin level…. but if Moylan finally cracks it at 5/8, then its his position going forward.

      With Pearce leading the team; Newcastle will be very competitive next year and should sneak into the 8.

    • December 8th 2017 @ 9:42am
      Mike Hunt said | December 8th 2017 @ 9:42am | ! Report

      Solid piece. Maloney’s defensive woes aside, I think it’s tough to argue the attacking prowess he brings to any team he joins. I mean lets face it, every side he’s touched as achieved success (if you can take the Warriors to the GF you might as well try to fly as well). The Panthers will benefit highly from this move and we’re going to see a lethal attacking duo in Cleary and Maloney.

      In regards to Pearce, well the guy is a top NRL half.
      Has been for years when all he needed to do was show up and play for a team that he thought would accommodate him for life. Now he’s out of his comfort zone, playing to prove himself and possibly out for a bit of vengance. If he’s going to reach the next level he’s struggled to touch after so long, this is the season.

    • December 8th 2017 @ 9:51am
      paul said | December 8th 2017 @ 9:51am | ! Report

      Pearce has the opportunity to be a stand out at Newcastle and if he plays to the best of his ability, should be in contention for SOO. You don’t need to be surrounded by champion players to make the team – just ask Tedesco.

      Maloney on paper could equally do himself a disservice by spending too much time helping Cleary develop to be an SOO contender.

      The real question Freddie should be asking is whether either guy is good enough to lead the side to an SOO series victory and history would suggest they’re not. That being the case, why would you consider them? No argument they’re highly competitive first graders and will add serious skill and passion to their club sides, but NSW has consistently lost when they’ve played and Pearce in particular has gone MIA at exactly the times he was needed to step up and lead the team.

      Hopefully Freddie will remember club form does not necessarily translate into SOO form.

    • December 8th 2017 @ 10:27am
      Albo said | December 8th 2017 @ 10:27am | ! Report

      I think Pearce only got the 7 spot this year so that NSW could give Cleary another year to develop, and there were no other viable halves options. Pearce won’t play SOO again if Cleary remains fit in 2018. As for his likely halves partner, at 6 , assuming Moylan keeps his nose clean and away from Northies down at Cronulla, then he should grab the 6 jumper, and link up again with Cleary for NSW. Fittler, Brandy & Gus are all fans of both Cleary & Moylan ( despite his walkout from Penrith). I am sure this Blues brains trust have earmarked Cleary & Moylan as the key halves to be heading up the next Blues dynasty. Only if Moylan fails to fire in his new Cronulla home this year, will they revert to Maloney, assuming his own form improves now out at Penrith.

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