Brad Fittler’s Origin II selections are basically an admission that the Blues stuffed up big time when they chose the team for game one.
NSW were guilty of being too clever by half before the State of Origin series opener, bringing in newbies Ryan Matterson, Kotoni Staggs and Stephen Crichton, recalling Reagan Campbell-Gillard after a four-year absence and standing by Tariq Sims despite modest club form.
Key stalwarts from their recent three series wins in four years stretch were cast aside – Jake Trbojevic, Angus Crichton and Josh Addo-Carr. The two forwards have been recalled but The Foxx has again been snubbed despite stellar recent performances for the Bulldogs.
On top of losing Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic before the series started, the game-one changes meant the Blues were unsettled leading into the all-important only home fixture at Accor Stadium and paid the price in the 16-10 loss.
And now Fittler has doubled down by making several changes for game two in Perth on Sunday.
The extended squad changes don’t particularly matter – Clint Gutherson, Victor Radley and Jordan McLean are technically three new faces in the squad but having them in the reserves instead of Jacob Saifiti and Tyson Frizell won’t mean much come kick-off.
As far as the game-day 17, elevating Stephen Crichton to the centres with Jack Wighton ruled out with COVID-19 makes sense given his Panthers connection with winger Brian To’o and halves Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary.
Another example of an idea which probably should have been used in game one.
Staggs seemed a little overawed by the occasion and would have been better if given another chance but Fittler has decided to throw another debutant into the other centre berth and, again, the Penrith connection helps with Bulldogs star Matt Burton reconnecting with his premiership-winning teammates from last year.
In the pack, NSW know what they’re going to get with Trbojevic and Angus Crichton while Siosifa Talakai gives them a potential game-breaker who can come in short spurts to cause havoc, a counterpoint to Jeremiah Nanai on the Queensland bench.
Elevating Api Koroisau to the starting side is another “imitation being the best form of flattery” concession that the Maroons’ system of Harry Grant and Ben Hunt sharing dummy-half/roving lock duties gave them an edge in Origin I.
Damien Cook has played 12 of his 13 Origins without a specialist hooker on the bench – the only time he did have one was when Koroisau made his debut in last year’s game-three loss.
Now he’s on the bench and Koroisau starts – why do the Blues all of a sudden need to change what has been a successful formula over a four-year span?
Fittler said “that’ll be a tactical change, going in with two hookers” but was adamant it was the right call when he fronted reporters before flying to Western Australia on Monday morning.
He has never been afraid to make major changes when he thought it was necessary. You pick players to win the game is his simple, yet effective, philosophy.
Leading into his first match in charge in 2018 he picked a record 11 debutants and when they were down 1-0 in the series the following year, he made seven changes for a must-win match in Perth and the Blues romped home 38-6.
Whether it works this time around at Optus Stadium remains to be seen but Fittler has earned the right to pick whoever he thinks will get the job done after holding up the shield at the end of three of his four series as coach.
“When you get beaten, you need to reassess,” he said. “We have no safety net at the moment. We went into the first game thinking a certain way about how the game would go and what we could do but it didn’t happen.
The centres face a mammoth task against the experienced Queensland duo of Dane Gagai and Valentine Holmes.
“Jack Wighton obviously can’t play and I just thought of Matt Burton, with the way he’s playing (for the Bulldogs). What Crichton does with Penrith, he’s a great defender,” Fittler said.
In the pack, he wants reliability and impact from the bench. Fittler said Trbojevic was recalled because “just the way the game went in Game One, I think we needed someone really defensively minded” while Sims, 32, has likely played his last match for NSW: “He’s done a fantastic job for NSW. We really appreciate what he’s been doing but we’re looking towards the future.
“[Talakai] started the season in the middle, played on an edge and also has played centre. He was unlucky not to make the first game. He’s someone we’ve been watching and we’ve been very excited watching.
“[Angus Crichton] is playing really powerfully at the moment. There are different ways he can play, in the middle or on an edge, but I’m really happy with the way he’s going.”