While the grand opening of this year’s State of Origin bonanza is still a few months off, for the incumbent NSW halves, it should feel a million years away.
Both Nathan Cleary and James Maloney have struggled for form and consistency so far this season, and apart from a few defensive efforts from the latter in Newcastle last week, neither have really made a dent on the 2019 competition.
In Bathurst on Saturday, both were poor.
Sure, halves shouldn’t be blamed for a defeat when their pack fails to fire, but Penrith weren’t without chances.
For the first half hour, the Panthers had a healthy amount of quality possession and at one stage repeatedly peppered the Storm line.
With the amount of ball they had in the opposition red zone, two State of Origin halves should be able to convert that dominance into points.
When it came to points though, the Panthers only managed two. All game.
Cleary in particular looks to be struggling with the ball in 2019. His move to the left doesn’t appear to be bearing fruit as he tries to develop his combinations on that flank.
This will hopefully change with time, but time will soon begin to run out if he has serious aspirations of holding on to his Origin jersey.
Brad Fittler will undoubtedly want to remain loyal to the No.7, particularly given his age and enormous potential, but youth and loyalty doesn’t win football games though and State of Origin is far from a charity.
To compound the struggles of Cleary and Maloney, Luke Keary is fast establishing himself as the state’s premier half.
So strong has the form of Keary been that some are genuinely questioning whether the Roosters are a better side without Cooper Cronk. For the record, I am not one of those.
There’s no denying that Keary has been masterful, however, and it’s reached a point where he simply has to be there injury permitting for the Origin opener.
Whether he plays No.6 or No.7 is up to Fittler and the incumbents.
It’s not implausible to suggest that Cleary and Maloney will be fighting for one Blue jumper in the coming months.
If both fail to fire, however, Fittler and his advisors may need to give serious consideration to an entirely new halves pairing for the 2019 series.
With Cameron Munster and Daly Cherry-Evans firing for their respective clubs in Round 3, the Blues can ill afford to head into this years series with a halves pairing severely under the weather.
Depending on how the next few months pan out, Adam Reynolds may well jump to the front of the queue to partner Keary at the NSW scrum base.
The Souths No.7 is in career-best form and has played Origin before. He and Keary have all the ingredients to make for a very dominant representative halves pairing. It’s also worth noting that they won a premiership together with Souths five years ago.
Maloney and Cleary should be concerned.
In more positive news for the incumbent batch of Blues, Tom Trbojevic and James Tedesco were more than just sublime over the weekend.
The fact it was Trbojevic’s first game of the season made his two tries all the more impressive.
Talk of Blake Ferguson’s return to Freddy’s good books may have lead some to forget about these two superstars, but Kevin Walters and Brad Fittler wouldn’t be among them.
For Nathan Cleary and James Maloney though, their form must improve.
Otherwise, Fittler and the Blues may just be forced to forget about them.