At this time of the NRL season almost every on-field action is viewed through a State of Origin prism.
The rugby league world is awash with speculation about Origin hopefuls playing themselves in or out of contention for a blue or maroon jersey.
While it’s all good for content, I would expect that with a fortnight until squads are announced, New South Wales and Queensland’s respective coaches Brad Fittler and Kevin Walters have decided on 90 per cent of their squad and are now just thinking about combinations and utility value from a player on the fringes of selection.
Among all the speculation, it was pretty much accepted that Penrith’s halves duo of James Maloney and Nathan Cleary would line up at the six and seven for the Blues.
Until this week, that is. New South Wales ‘adviser’ Greg Alexander casually detonated a hydrogen-strength selection bomb, bringing to light Fittler’s concerns with Maloney’s defence.
It was a completely unexpected entry into the news cycle and Maloney should rightly feel a little bemused about it all, to put it lightly.
Alexander’s and then Fittler’s subsequent comments during the week are clearly being done to prepare Blues fans for the reality that Fittler’s squad will include Parramatta halfback Mitchell Moses.
The reaction from New South Wales supporters has been visceral. They don’t want Moses, who they see as a turnstile in defence and a poor decision-maker in attack.
Is the hate justified, though? Is Moses such a liability? Is selecting him a ‘classic New South Wales move’ as it has been described?
I’ll admit that until Fittler and Alexander started talking Moses up I hadn’t thought he was a chance. But when you think about it, it starts to make some sense.
Let’s take a look at the numbers (according to the NRL).
Maloney has missed 75 tackles in 11 games this season. In last year’s Origin series he missed 18 tackles across the three games.
Queensland (and everyone else, for that matter) know to send their traffic his way because you’ve got a better than average chance of getting through.
Maloney’s defence tightened up against the Tigers on Thursday night, but for Fittler that could be too little, too late.
Now I can hear you all screaming at me, and I know – Moses misses tackles too. He’s fourth in the NRL with 47 airgrabs.
It might shock a few to discover that statistically, there’s not much difference between Moses and Maloney in attack (Maloney has seven try assists and five line break assists, Moses has six and four). The numbers are also pretty similar for errors and penalties (Maloney seven and 13, Moses eight and ten).
But Fittler has a more important reason to favour Moses over Maloney. And it goes well beyond statistics.
Maloney is 31 years old, a veteran attached to New South Wales’ darkest period in Origin history. Fair or unfair, that’s the way it is.
Moses is 23. Try to set aside the Twitter hate, the Facebook memes and all that noise. Don’t be sidetracked by the dramatics from his move from the Tigers to the Eels or be distracted by the sideline microphone potty mouth – he’s a seriously good player.
After Moses got across to Parramatta in 2017 he was a key figure in the Eels’ charge to the top four.
He backed that up with an electrifying world cup campaign, dragging Lebanon to a quarter-final and a heartbreaking loss to Tonga, a team a lot of people thought could challenge for the title.
As coach of the Cedars, Fittler saw how Moses operates up close in a leadership role, and he most definitely liked what he saw.
Parramatta’s woeful 2018 is being used as a reason not to pick Moses, and I couldn’t disagree more with this argument.
When you surround a player of Moses’ talent with other young guns overseen by a coach who’s willing to give them their head, anything can happen.
This week gave the distinct impression Fittler is shaping the Blues to suit Moses in the halves, letting him display a game Fittler says is ‘designed for Origin’.
Handing Moses a blue jersey will drive New South Wales fans wild and will make Queenslanders lean back smugly. The rugby league world will paint massive targets on both Moses and Fittler and leave them zero room for error.
Like we tend to do in league, the smallest error will be turned into the end of civilisation as we know it.
But remember this: New South Wales’ elder statesmen, administrators, coaches and mystical ‘advisers’ have been telling anyone who’ll listen that the team is starting from scratch to rebuild their foundations for sustained Origin success.
So New South Wales supporters may not feel it right now, but you should be excited by what Moses would bring. It’s a new start for the Blues and it can set your state up for a long time.
I’ve said it before that this is the best collection of young talent for New South Wales in a generation.
With Fittler and Moses’ understanding and the halfback’s undoubted talent, there’s a real chance that Moses alongside Cleary could be the start of something good.