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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.
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.
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.