January is not usually a time for rugby league teams to join, rejoin or quit competitions – or for State of Origin sides to go into camp.
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Brad Fittler’s baby Blues are on to something special. But it may not last very long.
Just ask Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson.
Now in and out of first grade at the Tigers and Sea Eagles respectively, only four years ago the pair succeeded in the formidable task of halting Queensland’s eight-year reign of terror.
In 2014, New South Wales rejoiced. Queensland’s dominance was finally over.
And Blues fans were dreaming big.
Game 3 that year, Laurie Daley’s men travelled to Suncorp Stadium with the full support of the state behind them, an unlikely series whitewash the goal.
Yet, just as the maroon fortress looked like it was crumbling, Queensland withstood the Blues’ barrage to run away 32-8 victors.
It may have been weakened, but the fortress was still standing. And only a year later, it had been restored to its former glory.
The Maroons were 52-6 winners in Game 3, 2015, crushing the hearts of Blues fans once more and claiming state bragging rights.
There was no dynasty. Rather, there was that same sinking feeling of losing yet another series. Then another. And another after that.
In saying that, New South Wales fans have every right to be hopeful once more. After all, this year’s squad included a record 11 debutants in Game 1, and you can add Matt Prior (Game 2) and Tariq Sims (Game 3) to that tally.
The foundations are there for long-term success.
However, let’s face it. The larrikin and leader of the group, James Maloney, isn’t getting any younger.
His composure and leadership have transformed the youthful Penrith Panthers from a team of potential to genuine premiership contenders this year, and these qualities have also been integral to the Blues’ success in 2018.
Without the 32-year-old five-eighth, it is unlikely that New South Wales would have won either of the first two games this year.
Assistant coach Greg Alexander said it himself, stating “I said to Jimmy after Game 2, we don’t win those games without you, either game. His leadership has been outstanding.”
While 20-year-old halfback Nathan Cleary has been particularly impressive in defence for the Blues, it has been clear that this is Maloney’s team in attack.
It’s completely understandable. Maloney has been there before. He thrives under pressure, having led the Roosters and Sharks to premierships in 2013 and 2016 respectively. Hell, he even got the Warriors to a grand final in 2011.
While it is all well and good to give the experienced Maloney greater responsibility, Cleary is the long-term solution to the Blues’ recent woes.
And tonight’s game against Queensland is the perfect chance to see whether he has what it takes.
The Maroons have won 11 of the past 13 State of Origin series, and a significant reason for their recent domination was the stability in their halves pairing.
From 2006 through to 2011, Jonathan Thurston and Darren Lockyer combined to lead the Queenslanders to six straight series wins, with the Broncos five-eighth only missing Queensland’s 2008 campaign due to a troublesome knee injury.
Their stranglehold over the interstate competition only continued after Lockyer announced his retirement in 2011, with Cooper Cronk partnering JT and guiding the Maroons to another five series victories.
Again, the only time one of the two was left out of the squad was when Thurston missed the majority of the 2017 series with a shoulder injury.
As we know all too well, the story south of the border is the complete opposite, with the Blues using 20 halves combinations since 2006.
Even after the drought-breaking series win in 2014, five-eighth Reynolds was left out of the Game 1 squad the following year.
He may not have been in the best form at the time, yet his dumping speaks volumes to the instability that has plagued the Blues.
With Cleary’s rise, Fittler has one of those rare players that could guide New South Wales to plenty of Origin success in the years to come.
Unlike the Maroons, who are yet to nail down a long-term replacement for Cronk, Cleary has all the attributes that make him the perfect successor for Maloney. He has the composure and footballing know-how to succeed in rep footy, and he’s still only 20 years old.
You only have to look at the role he played in Penrith’s surge to the finals last year to find further proof of his credentials.
In his first complete season in the NRL, Cleary took full control of the team, a sign of immense confidence at his age.
His most notable game of the year came when he scored three tries in a man-of-the-match effort against the Warriors in Round 19.
Just as impressive was his long-range kicking game, with the rookie halfback easing the pressure off debuting halves partner Tyrone May.
Maloney has done similar for Cleary in this year’s Origin series.
Now it is time to let the promising halfback know that this is his team, that he can become the Blues’ first successful halfback since Andrew Johns retired.
That starts tonight at Suncorp.