Based on what we saw from Jamal Idris in the opening month of the season, he certainly didn’t appear to be on course to make his NSW Origin debut in May.
Don’t get me wrong - he wasn’t particularly poorly, he just wasn’t particularly well.
Whilst there has never been any doubts about the 19 year old's talent and athletic ability, he was definitely struggling to keep up with the whirlwind pace of the NRL in those first few weeks. In fact, he looked slow and cumbersome and something of a liability in the Bulldogs' right side defence.
In retrospect, it’s now fairly obvious that no matter how hard he works on the pre-season training paddock, he is one of those kind of players who needs game time to establish a hardened fitness base. Over the last six weeks his performances have blossomed, and the young giant takes his place on the Blues' bench after just 32 games in first grade.
He was always going to wear the sky blue jersey, but it was still something of a surprise that he was called upon so early. However, we all love a “ bolter”, especially one with oodles of personality.
Jamal is also the prototype outside back when it comes to today’s Origin football.
It’s no secret that selectors favour those who can play like an extra forward early in the tackle count, dominate physically in defence and enjoy a distinct advantage in the air whenever kicks are aimed their way.
Along with his build, what really brought him right into contention is the attitude he has displayed in recent games.
NSW coach Craig Bellamy could not have failed to have been impressed with the confidence displayed by the youngster when he literally took the experienced Timana Tahu head on in their Round 8 clash.
Jamal was in no way intimidated when Tahu applied the acid test. In fact, it was Timana who lost his cool after the young buck stood his ground, even offering to ‘high five’ his opponent in the coolest of manoeuvres.
CLICK HERE to relive that personal battle on our Game Analyser.
More importantly, this confidence and attitude has been evident in elements of his general play. On the weekend against the Dragons there were two incidents that stood out.
The first was very early in the second half with the competition leaders launching one of their dangerous left side raids. The usual suspects in Ben Hornby, Ben Creagh, Darius Boyd and Matt Cooper unfolded the play that has been such a difficult proposition for everyone to handle.
Early in the season, Jamal would have been content to sit back and watch what was happening in front of him and not prepared to take the initiative.
This time, however, he showed energy and vision to force the issue. He rushed up on Boyd who, under pressure, threw a poor pass to Cooper whose timing was also thrown out, resulting in a mistake.
CLICK HERE to see Jamal's vision in defence against the Dragons.
The second may have been on the back of a Dragons try, but the chase by Idris was again about effort and desire.
With St George Illawarra keeping the ball alive deep in their own territory, the Bulldogs were caught out for numbers and Idris again came up quickly to snuff out the attack. He missed Boyd on the Dragons' 20 metre line, who then passed to Hornby who found Cooper.
The easy thing for Jamal to have done would have been to miss the tackle and stop. Instead, he turned and sprinted back 70 meters in what was ultimately a vain attempt to deny Cooper scoring. It was an effort that demonstrated the mentality needed to play Origin.
CLICK HERE to see Jamal's desperation in defence.
It will be interesting as to when Craig Bellamy will look to introduce the rookie against Queensland.
When he does, it appears it will be when hooker Michael Ennis is given a spell. That will see Kurt Gidley go to dummy-half and Jarryd Hayne moved back to fullback. Idris may even share right centre and wing duties with Tahu when he is put into action.
Ideally, NSW will look to get the ball into his hands when close to the Maroons' try-line. Jamal’s favourite line is to come back on the inside and try to get one-on-one with a defender.
Poor Wade McKinnon found himself in this position when the Warriors took on the Bulldogs in Round 5. Luke Patten drifted across from dummy-half before finding his centre dropping under at speed. The Warrior’s fullback was never a chance.
CLICK HERE to see Jamal cut back on the inside and slice through the Warriors.
At the other end of the field, the Broncos were also unable to cope with a similar run in Round 7 when Idris initiated a long-range try for Luke Patten. What was particularly impressive about this charge was that he beat strong defenders in Sam Thaiday and Lagi Setu.
CLICK HERE to see Jamal slice through some strong Brisbane defenders and slip away an amazing offload.
However, if I have a criticism, it is that a couple of times in recent big matches he has looked to come back inside when a break has been made and clearly the right play was to continue to support on the outer. In Origin, opportunities don’t present themselves too often ,so you must make the correct choices.
We know he does have the capacity to make the right decision under pressure, as shown by Steve Turner’s try against the Roosters in Round 3. With Luke Patten again heading across field there was a huge temptation for Jamal to go back inside with a gap appearing. Instead, he stayed out allowing Patten to commit two defenders and create an overlap against winger Anthony Minichiello. A simple catch and pass saw Turner stroll over.
CLICK HERE to see Jamal's clever decision making.
May 26 will be an important step in the evolution of Jamal Idris as a footballer. Playing State of Origin elevates an individual to an elite status, and it takes maturity to handle the pressure cooker environment. At nearly 115 kilos and standing 194 cm tall, we know that physically he is up to the task. It is now up to him to match that with the necessary mental toughness.