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The five changes Brad Fittler must make for NSW to win Game 2

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Expert
10th June, 2019
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I’d like to believe that New South Wales were narrowly edged out by Queensland in Game 1.

That the Blues dominated the run of play for the majority of the contest only for the Maroons to come storming home in the second half.

But the reality is that NSW were comprehensively beaten.

The game was evenly poised during the first half. The Blues created plenty of opportunities through the brilliance of Damien Cook and James Tedesco, and while they failed to convert possession into points, they were making good metres through the middle.

Things looked promising.

The second half was a different story altogether. The Maroons downed a schooner of Origin Kool-Aid during the break and came out of the sheds breathing fire. They started tackling harder, running with more purpose, and dictating the pace of the game. The away side simply had no answers.

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In the end, the 18-14 scoreline flattered NSW, yet while Kevin Walters would have been delighted to have won the game, I’m sure he wasn’t satisfied with his team’s performance. The Maroons left plenty of points on the field at Suncorp Stadium. Don’t expect that to happen again.

So before Brad Fittler selects his team for Game 2, he needs to ask himself whether the current team is capable of beating an improved Queensland side.

To win in Perth and keep the series alive, Fittler needs to make five key changes.

Change 1: Tariq Sims replaces Jack Wighton
As is the case every year, the build-up to Game 1 focused almost entirely on the ferocity of Origin football. Clips of Paul Harragon hurling himself into the defence and Mark Carroll bleeding from the head played on loop, designed to fire up even the most fair-weather of New South Wales supporters.

So when the Maroons started dominating early in the second half, pinning the Blues inside their own 20-metre line with blistering line-speed and punishing defence, I – like many of my fellow New South Welshmen – waited for our forward leader to step up and return serve.

But it never happened. Much like Homer Simpson’s boxing career, the NSW kept absorbing abuse until their opponent grew weary of serving it up.

And that’s when it hit me: the Blues don’t have a forward leader.

Go through the team list if you don’t believe me. Boyd Cordner, Jake Trbojevic, Tyson Frizell, Paul Vaughan, Angus Crichton. Honestly, you’d find more mongrel at the Westminster Kennel Club than you would in the Blues pack.

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Which is where Tariq Sims comes in.

Tariq Sims

Tariq Sims of the Dragons (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The St George Illawarra second-rower not only walks around with a permanent chip on his shoulder, he seems to revel in the physical facets of rugby league. Given the mandate to go out there and wreak havoc, Sims would provide immediate impact off the bench.

And while the idea of replacing a utility like Wighton with a specialist forward may sound concerning, the Blues have enough cover in their squad already. Cameron Murray could easily cover dummy half and centre, while Jake Trbojevic would be a handy replacement in the halves if needed.

Change 2: Josh Jackson replaces Angus Crichton
NSW were blown off the park in the second half of Game 1. Queensland came out of the sheds with a maniacal intensity rarely witnessed outside the Westfield carpark at Bondi Junction, and the Blues couldn’t match it.

Part of the problem was Fittler’s forward rotation. With Murray and Payne Haas both on debut and Crichton still relatively green, the inexperience of the bench needed to be mitigated by timing their introduction into the contest carefully. In this regard, they failed.

For extended periods of the second half all three bench forwards were on the field at the same time, during which period Queensland regained the ascendency, bullying and bashing the opposing pack into submission. At times the contest was so lopsided, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t watching a Parramatta game.

While Murray played with plenty of enthusiasm and Haas punched out multiple strong carries, Crichton was well off the pace of the game. He wasn’t in the best club-form heading into this contest, and only held his spot through incumbency.

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Angus Crichton

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

It would be tempting to hand a debut to Ryan Matterson or Dale Finucane, as both are certainly deserving of selection. However this would only compound the issue of inexperience.

I’m going with Josh Jackson.

The Bulldogs skipper is one of the most reliable performers in the competition. Similar to Cordner, Jackson is a stout defender and plays long minutes. But more importantly, his first carry is just as tough as his last.

He will provide veteran leadership while the starting forwards are having a breather.

Change 3: Matt Lodge replaces David Klemmer
This change comes out of necessity. Klemmer busted his wrist during the opening stages of Game 1 and bravely played on for the next 50-odd straight minutes before finally being interchanged. He was easily the best forward on the park during the first half, and his absence leaves a gaping hole.

Based purely on form, Matt Lodge is the best candidate to fill that hole.

The hulking Brisbane prop has outperformed his more fancied Broncos teammates this season, and brings the kind of aggression and lunacy that made Klemmer so damaging.

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Does the selection of Lodge in a representative team make me uncomfortable? Yeah, it does. As much as the game has moved on from the troubling events involving Lodge in the US several years ago, it still plays on my mind whenever I watch him take the field.

As a father, I struggle with the idea of my son or even myself barracking for a player who has acted in such an atrocious manner. But if the NRL are satisfied that Lodge has taken the necessary steps to rehabilitate himself and compensate his victims, then I guess I can handle the thought of him representing NSW.

If they pick him, I’ll cheer for him.

Matt Lodge at Brisbane Broncos training

Matt Lodge (AAP Image/David Clark)

Change 4: Mitchell Pearce replaces Nathan Cleary
At this point in his career, Nathan Cleary is an above-average halfback. That might be painful for his supporters to hear, but it’s the truth.

Based on his performances at both club and representative level, I put Cleary on par with the likes of Chad Townsend and Blake Green. He’s strong in defence, possesses a powerful long-kicking game, and is efficient at distributing the ball to his edge forwards and outside backs.

He certainly has the talent and temperament to become great, but he isn’t there yet.

Cleary’s biggest shortcoming is his inability to manufacture points. It’s been on show all season at Penrith and it came back to haunt NSW. Raised in an era of structured attack and possession football, Cleary lacks the creativity and imagination that we’ve come to expect from our representative halves.

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If you listen to the state coaching staff, Cleary did exactly what was asked of him in Game 1. He steered the team around the park, defended well and kicked the team out of trouble when needed. He did his job.

That’s a cop out.

If that’s all we expect from a halfback, the most important player on the field and the centerpiece of attack, then NSW might as well just hand the shield to Queensland and cancel their flight to Perth.

Nathan Cleary kicks for the Blues during State of Origin

Nathan Cleary (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The Blues need more from the halfback if they’re to win, and as much as people don’t want to admit it, Mitchell Pearce remains the best option.

Similar to Cleary, the Knights captain is a strong defender and possesses a powerful kicking game. However unlike Cleary, Pearce is in white-hot form, is brimming with confidence, and he’s been the driving force behind an attack averaging 32 points per game over the past six weeks.

Say what you will about Pearce’s history at rep level but he’s currently the form halfback in the competition and the captain of a team that’s reeled off six straight wins, including over the Roosters and Rabbitohs.

With the series on the line, Pearce is the obvious choice.

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Change 5: Tom Trbojevic replaces Josh Morris
Josh Morris did exactly what everyone expected Josh Morris to do in Game 1 – he made his tackles, capitalised on opportunities, and didn’t let anyone down.

Had it been 2009 instead of 2019, the former Dragon and Bulldog would have been one of the first players picked for Game 2. But the 32-year-old knows his time in the blindingly bright Origin spotlight is over.

Morris was reluctant to make himself available for the opening game and only agreed to come out of representative retirement because injury and poor form had robbed Fittler of a suitable alternative.

Josh Morris of the Blues is tackled by Johnathan Thurston of the Maroons

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

The return of Tom Trbojevic changes that equation.

A key member of the triumphant team of 2018, Tommy Turbo made a successful return for Manly over the weekend. And while he showed plenty of rust, he also had enough classy touches to justify his Origin inclusion.

Trbojevic not only provides the Blues with another game breaker in the backline, but he’s also an excellent support player and a tall target for attacking kicks within the opposition 20-metre zone. If he’s fit and ready to go, I can’t imagine he won’t be selected.

Brad Fittler is a loyal man and those loyalties will certainly be tested when he sits down with Danny Buderus and Greg Alexander to pick his side.

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His heart will be leaning towards retaining the bulk of the current squad and giving them a chance to redeem themselves. However his head must surely be wondering if those same 17 players have enough points in them to topple Queensland.

Laurie Daley was a loyal man as well.