Go on, admit it. Like me and any number of others, you had Ryan James suiting up this Sunday for New South Wales.
After all, the Titans captain was actually packed and booked on a flight to Melbourne for Game 1, before Brad Fittler pulled the rug from under him, deciding to run with Canterbury-Bankstown’s David Klemmer.
So when the Roosters’ Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (unintentionally) broke Blues starter Reagan Campbell-Gillard’s jaw, surely James was a natural progression. Surely.
Maybe you even pegged Tariq Sims to get a shot. Paul Vaughan could move up off the bench. I was even wondering if Shannon Boyd might get a late, late call-up.
But Matt Prior? Why was the Cronulla-Sutherland veteran even in the 20? He’s too old and unremarkable, too out of whack with coach Fittler’s ‘fresh and new, moving forward’ ethos.
Nope. Fittler keeps the selection surprises coming, with Prior getting a most unexpected starting nod for Game 2.
[latest_videos_strip category=”rugby-league” name=”League”]
Losing a spot to someone who wasn’t even in the Game 1 squad and was barely mentioned in dispatches will not make James feel any better about himself, particularly after the strong performances he’s put in since that initial disappointment.
In the words of the experts and the coach himself, James had done everything that had been asked of him.
But harsh as it is on James, Prior is the right choice for Sunday night.
I do have to raise my hand – until Prior decimated the Raiders in the 2016 finals, I hadn’t paid him much attention. As far as I was concerned, he was an honest toiler going about his business who’d never performed like that before and was unlikely to ever again.
I’d never thought of Prior for Origin and I’m pretty comfortable saying I wasn’t on my own there. Even when he made the squad, he didn’t garner a lot of attention.
But that was grossly unfair, ignoring a career of consistently high-quality output from a team man who is loved by those he plays alongside.
It was a brutally tough choice for Fittler. He wanted to select players in form, he got two. He wanted predictable, reliable, genuine front-rower options, he’s got two worthy exponents.
Surely James copping that recent rough deal was in the back of his mind as well.
If going by numbers is your thing, not much separates James and Prior. There has been a lot made of Prior’s age in the context of NSW wiping the selection table clean. Prior is 31, James is 26, but this is Prior’s Origin debut, meaning Fittler will have given 12 players their first Blues cap in 2018.
That’s a massive number and Fittler clearly wants someone in there who has experience in big games, on and off the field.
And this is where Prior’s resume gets to the top of the pile of applicants. His credentials are first class: two premierships, with St George and Cronulla respectively, a career winning percentage of 58 per cent over 216 games, and a reputation for delivering on the game’s biggest stages.
He’s perfect for what the Blues need to shut out Queensland and take the series, by helping to keep things on rails when the pressure is at its most intense.
Prior is no stranger to pressure or other unexpected scenarios – in Round 8, he checked out of hospital after a few days of treatment for a blood infection on a Friday, landed on the Gold Coast that night, played almost 60 minutes the next day against the Titans, then left the ground half an hour after the siren to get back to his partner, who was due to give birth to their first child (she gave birth to a girl a little while after).
He won’t be bothered by the likes of Dylan Napa, Josh McGuire or Jarrod Wallace.
Prior is a rock in defence who gets up into the attacker’s face quickly and leaves a mark when he gets there. He runs hard and is going just as hard at the end of games as he was at the start, and when he gets into a groove, it takes more than a few members of the defensive line to bring him down.
His prop work is much like Campbell-Gillard’s, the man he replaced. It’s not the overly sexy stuff, it’s solid fundamentals with a timely sidestep and a quality offload.
To coin a phrase, he might just be built for Origin.
Sunday night will be probably the most high-pressure environment these players will experience. There’s a real need for someone who has been at the coalface, with a stadium full of screaming fans who expect you to win.
In the world of these brand-new, fresh, young and hip Blues, Fittler knows that with Prior he’ll get reliable, old-school grunt up the middle against a desperate Queensland side.