The NRL’s much-loved pre-season Nines competition will make its return next season, with the 2020 NRL Nines to be played at Perth’s HBF Park on February 14 and 15.
I’m not sure what has caused more chaos to my weekend – injury concerns in the NRL or Brad Fittler surprising all of us and deciding to announce his New South Wales Blues squad for State of Origin Game 2 at 10.30pm on Saturday night.
The announcement took place just after Ireland had beaten the Wallabies in the rugby and France had beaten the Socceroos at the World Cup.
State of Origin wasn’t meant to give me much material this weekend. My expectation was that, following the Blues’ win over Queensland in Game 1 by 22-12, Fittler’s squad would virtually stay the same.
The Blues’ performance in Game 1 meant that for players like Tariq Sims, Ryan James and Euan Aitken, it was going to be very hard for them to get a look-in in the 17-man side, despite being considered quite unlucky to miss out on final selection.
Then Friday and Saturday happened.
Put simply, there was carnage in the NRL. By the time the game between the Brisbane Broncos and Cronulla Sharks had ended on Saturday night, no less than nine players had left the field with semi-serious to serious injuries, including Matt Scott, Solomone Kata, Sam Hoare and Blake Ferguson.
No-one ever likes to see players injured. But at this time of the year, the focus seems to move slightly from player welfare to immediately thinking about what impact injuries will have on Origin squads.
And Brad Fittler certainly would have had some frightening moments, especially during the game between the Sydney Roosters and Penrith Panthers on Friday night when both Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Latrell Mitchell left the field.
At the time, Mitchell’s knock looked most serious. Fortunately, despite initial concerns over a real spinal injury, he was later cleared of neck damage after having an MRI scan during the game. He was named in the squad.
Unfortunately, the news was not so positive for Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who suffered a displaced jaw fracture and, as a result, will miss 4-6 weeks.
As disappointing as this was, particularly after Campbell-Gillard only made his State of Origin debut in Game 1 this year, it has now given Ryan James an opportunity to make his Origin debut – a debut that is well overdue.
James has been on the cusp of Origin selection for several years.
But this year, he has certainly been a stand out for the Titans, despite it taking Garth Brennan some time to work out how to use him appropriately. In Round 1 we saw James playing on the edge, despite him been most effective during his career in the middle because he is a strong carrier of the football.
It came as no surprise once James returned to the middle with James Wallace and Jai Arrow that the Titans started to dominate teams up the guts.
His performance last weekend against the South Sydney Rabbitohs, when he scored two tries, made 46 tackles and 163 metres from 20 runs, was particularly noteworthy. His efforts this weekend, up against one of his Origin teammates, David Klemmer, were also impressive. In the 20th minute, he pushed through a Klemmer tackle to score near the posts and also had another big week of work with 51 tackles, 126 metres and 11 hit ups.
His Origin spot is well deserved and I have no doubt that he will impress on Sunday, particularly after waiting so long for an opportunity.
Fittler has also named Luke Keary in his squad. This seems precautionary, with ‘Freddy’ suggesting he was worried about a hobbling James Maloney after Penrith’s win over the Roosters.
Keary’s form, just like the Roosters, seems to be improving, but losing Maloney would be a huge blow for the Blues, particularly given Nathan Cleary is the halfback. Maloney and Cleary have been playing together all year and Maloney has proven to be a safe and reliable anchor for his young halves partner.
I hope he is fit for Game 2, because even though the 11 debutants performed well in Game 2, throwing a 12th (13th if you include James) debutant in the mix, especially in the halves, could prove dangerous.
Fittler wasn’t the only Origin coach with injury concerns. Kevin Walters has worries of his own and there may be some changes in the squad that he is expected to announce later today.
Some wondered whether Matt Scott might make a return for Game 2. That seems exceptionally unlikely after a potential neck/back injury in the Cowboys loss to the New Zealand Warriors.
Michael Morgan was also injured in this game and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a bicep injury.
This is a blessing in disguise for Walters.
It’s fair to say that Morgan was only included in the squad for Game 1 based on previous form. This year he has been battling injury and he looks tired, slow and a mere shadow of the player that single-handedly pushed the Cowboys to the grand final last year.
If there are still concerns about Billy Slater heading into Game 2, Walters simply has to pick Kalyn Ponga. At this stage, it is being reported that Slater will be named and given until Wednesday to prove his fitness.
There’s been some talk about Ponga being too young, but youth did not seem to be an issue for the 11 debutants that took the field for the Blues at the MCG.
That Game 1 scoreline flattered New South Wales and with a bit of extra attacking punch, Queensland have the team to be able to win Game 2. Ponga could absolutely provide that attacking punch.
I’m looking forward to seeing who Walters picks. We could even see a couple more debutants given that there are also injury clouds over Ben Hunt, Josh McGuire and Dane Gagai.
Given the amount of talent at Queensland’s disposal, I’m not feeling as confident heading into Sydney, but perhaps that it is only due to the scars of the past.
Bring on Game 2.