THIS time of year, with the National Rugby League season well underway, people’s thoughts quickly turn to State of Origin.
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More importantly, who is going to make the NSW Blues side to take on the monumental task that is the Queensland Maroons.
When I first started watching this thrilling spectacle, the Cockroaches were dominant, thanks largely to the influence of the Andrew Johns, Brad Fittlers and Lauire Daleys of the world.
But we are far removed from that golden generation, where us New South Welshmen took winning for granted.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Canetoads have won the 11 of the past 12 series, on the back of future immortals Cameron Smith, Darren Lockyer and Johnathon Thurston.
With the latter two now retired from the cauldron that is State of Origin, the Blues, under new coach Freddy Fittler, have as good a chance as any in the past decade to win the series – especially when you consider game one is in Melbourne.
Mix in the fact that a number of Blues players are in the best form of their lives, I can feel that this year might just be the year we finally send Smith and Co packing for good.
To do so, this is the side I believe that the Blues’ selectors must pick for the June 6 clash at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
At the back, the Blues need to go with the dynamic James Tedesco – who will be one of only a number of incumbents selected in the side.
Despite not playing up to his lofty standards since making the move east to Bondi, the fullback has ran more than 100 metres in each of his nine games this season – averaging 170.5 metres per contest.
This is a crucial stat in in terms of State of Origin – the way the fullback returns to ball and the metres they make can determine how successful that particular set of six will be.
If he runs close to his average on June 6, it will put the Blues in a very strong position.
On top of those run metres, he also has 50 tackle breaks, seven line breaks and three try assist this season in the tri-colours.
With Teddy at the back, my two wingers are Manly-Warringah’s Tom Trbojevic and Melbourne’s Josh Addo-Carr – who will both be making their sky blue debut on June 6.
‘Tommy Turbo’ has been in solid form for the Sea Eagles, despite Trent Barrett’s men underachieving on the field.
Although he plays at fullback for Manly, I think an introduction on the wing to the Origin arena suits him just fine – with him no doubt pegged to play at the back in the coming years.
His safe hands, height and strength will make him a tough cover for whoever he matches up on from the Maroons.
His wing partner Addo-Carr, affectionately known as the ‘fox’, has to be picked.
He leads the NRL in total line breaks and is the equal leading try-scorer with New Zealand’s David Fusitu’a, while also possessing mouth-watering speed.
Research reveals that his top speed of 37.8km/h makes him the fastest current football in the country.
To put it in perspective, Winx has clocked a top speed of 63km/h, with other noticeable athletes being Usian Bolt (44.72km/h), Gareth Bale (36.9km/h) and Toby Greene/Jarman Impey (both 35.3km/h).
This speed and ability to create something out of nothing, is sure to turn this year’s series on its head more than a couple of times.
These two debutant wingers will be joined by two first time centres – highlighting the revamped Blues side Fittler will have at his disposal.
My first centre is Pambula’s own Euan Aitken, who is a big reason why the St George Illawarra Dragons are sitting on top of the NRL ladder after nine rounds.
The Merimbula-Pambula Bulldogs junior is the perfectly balance of straight line, attacking prowess mixed in with rock-solid defence.
Aitken, who has also played for the Shellharbour Sharks in Group Seven, is currently third in the NRL’s try-scoring list with seven, highlighting his improvement on that end of the field – an area that somewhat gets underrated, because of the physical nature of his play.
And just like Matt Cooper before, also a Dragons centre, Aitken’s reliability on the defensive end – shown by his 85.4 per cent tackle efficiency rate – is made for State of Origin, especially as someone is going to take on Greg Inglis, a task he has risen to before and will do again.
If selected, he will follow in the footsteps of many great Dragons/Steelers centres before him that have played State of Origin including Brian Hetherington, Paul McGregor, Brett Rodwell, Shaun Timmins, Mark Gasnier and Cooper.
Picking Aitken’s centres partner was one of the more tricky selections I came across.
A host of names, including Melbourne’s Curtis Scott, Roosters’ Latrell Mitchell and Brisbane’s James Roberts, spring to mind straight away – all with good reason.
Scott’s chances are hampered by his recent ankle injury – which has seen me overlook him, leaving the final spot in back five down to two excitement machines, Mitchell and Roberts.
As much as I love the game of Jimmy ‘the jet’, I just think Latrell can offer Fittler’s side more.
Through the first nine rounds, the Rooster has ran more metres (793 to 695), created more tackle breaks (42 to 36) and has a higher tackle efficiency (82.8 per cent to 81.8 per cent) – all statistics which are up on his previous seasons.
Now that I have my back five locked in, it’s time for NSW’s biggest question mark – the halves.
James Maloney is a certainty – no ifs or buts.
But his partner is a lot harder to pencil in.
Before his knee injury, a lot of people had earmarked Maloney’s Panthers team mate Nathan Cleary as the number seven.
Since then other candidates, such as Souths’ Adam Reynolds, Roosters’ Luke Keary, Warriors’ Blake Green, Eels’ Mitch Moses and Wests’ Luke Brooks have been thrown around.
But non have really taken the opportunity by the scruff of the neck to say ‘PICK ME’.
As such, I still think the best option is Cleary, assuming he can get one or two games under his belt before the team is officially selected.
If he can prove his fitness, he’s in, because Maloney and him already know how each other’s play and we all know how important combinations and familiarity can be in matches like this.
If Cleary isn’t cleared, I think Reynolds should be given another shot at seven.
His kicking game and general decision making has helped Souths win three of their past four contests.
Differently to the halfback dilemma, the Blues have a plethora of forwards throwing their hat into the selection ring.
In terms of props, the first man to be selected has to be the Dragons’ Paul Vaughan.
In my opinion, he should have been there last year but finally the Gungahlin Bulls product will get his chance to pull on the sky blue jersey.
His stats below speak for themselves.
His aggression, toughness and go-forward have laid the platform, along with the rest of the Dragons’ pack, for their halves and backs to take advantage of.
Despite not having experienced the ferocious nature of State of Origin, I think he would excel in this arena.
His front-row partner David Klemmer doesn’t lack experience in this arena and has proven to thrive while donning the blue jersey.
While the Bulldogs have been disappointing in 2018, Klemmer has quietly been putting in an efficient season.
He leads the NRL in post contact metres (609), showing that his drive to continue going forward until he is brought down by numerous defenders.
He also averages more than 163 metres per game on close to 16 carries, highlighting his effectiveness with ball.
With these two leading the charge, I know the Blues will never take a backward step all series.
Another guy that is always prepared to put his body on the line is Souths’ rake Damien Cook.
The improvement that Cook has shown over the past couple of season has been outstanding, developing into one of the top hookers in the NRL.
I know there is a lot of support of Dragons’ Cam McInnes to be selected but I believe Cook offers more on both sides of the ball.
He’s made more tackles (377 to 321) while averaging close to double of the amount of run metres (114.1 to 60.2).
Although I love Nathan Peats as a player (from his time at the Eels), his injury and lack of form rule him our of contention in my opinion.
Combine these three workhorses with our back-row – which is probably as strong it’s been in a decade – the Blues have a real shot of overpowering the Maroons all series.
To be honest, I think these three, skipper Boyd Cordner, Tyson Frizell and Jake Trbojevic, pick themselves – being arguably the top three second-row forwards in the game at the moment.
They have all been playing at an exceptionally high level for their respective club sides and are proven performers at State of Origin level.
I know these three won’t let us down.
With my starting side now set in stone, let’s fill out my bench.
The first port of call is our utility player, which a lot of people have said has to be a hooker – more specifically the one of Cook and McInnes that doesn’t start.
Coach Fittler has even gone on record and said he is considering picking two rakes.
“Just generally having more damage out there, more speed and more energy – call it petrol, whatever you want to call it. I think [it’s an option] to really give the middle area the best opportunity to win it,” he said.
“They key is with them, everything comes off Cameron, it makes him so dangerous. I don’t know how many times we’ve won that middle, won that area around there. At times we’ve had Kurt Gidley, different players play the hooker role, but most of the time we’ve gone in with one hooker. (Two) is definitely in the thinking.”
And although I like McInnes as a player, I think the position can be better filled, especially when we have one of the top utility players at our disposal and in form.
Penrith’s Tyrone Peachey generally plays in the back-row but has been playing inside Maloney at five-eighth with Cleary’s injury – a position he hasn’t missed a beat at.
He can easily play in the centres if need be, as well as hooker – making him a no-brainer in my opinion.
The next three are all rampaging forwards in form and tailor-made for State of Origin.
Penrith’s Reagan Campbell-Gillard taken his play to another level since representing Australia at last year’s Rugby League World Cup and his legit size will help the side perfectly spell its two starting props.
Jack De Belin was in the Blues’ squad in 2017, getting a taste of the camp.
Since then, he has stated that he is ‘made for Origin’.
It would appear that he isn’t alone with these thoughts, as coach Fittler has huge raps on the damaging forward.
His versatility in the middle of the park as enabled the Dragons to play the way Paul McGregor wants to – and the proof is in the pudding, with the Dragons sitting in first with an 8-1 record after the first nine rounds.
While De Belin has been exceptional for the Dragons, so has his teammate Tariq Sims.
The Gerringong Lions junior has long been touted as a potential Origin player but a devastating broken leg while playing for the Cowboys somewhat derailed his career.
He has now found a home on the left edge of the Dragons attack, scoring three barn-storming tries, while also chalking up 28 tackle breaks and countless big hits.
Even during the pre-season, when I caught up with him, Tariq thought he was in the best shape of his life and that he was ready to take on the Maroons – all statements his backed up in a big way this season.
“Playing for NSW has always been a huge driving force for me – being able to represent my family and where I’m from,” he said.
“Most importantly though, I want to get that chance to test myself at the highest level, in that State of Origin cauldron.”
With the bench now full, my final 17 has been confirmed.
With a balance of strength, speed and experience, I believe this side can halt the Maroons from securing their fourth straight series victory.
Bring on June 6.
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