They have endured a torrid start to the season with injuries and poor form plaguing some key candidates but NSW State of Origin coach Ricky Stuart says it’s time his Origin hopefuls start lifting their game – beginning this weekend.
Concerned by what he has seen over the opening five rounds, Stuart has thrown the selection door wide open by refusing to guarantee any player a spot unless they prove otherwise over the next month.
Although he won’t name names publicly, the new Blues coach is known to be worried about his left edge following Matt Cooper’s retirement and an injury to Canterbury centre Josh Morris, while fullback remains another problem area given Jarryd Hayne’s indifferent form and ongoing injury worries for Josh Dugan and Brett Stewart.
Stuart said it was now up to his Origin hopefuls to prove that they deserved selection for the series opener on May 25.
“I expect from now right through to the City-Country game – I just need people to start to rev up and put their hand up,” Stuart told NRL.com.
“That’s what I’m looking for. Those people who have jumped at the challenge of playing like a rep player in club football, they’ll get selected. It could be little things off the ball… it could be little things that other people don’t do in regards to playing Origin. That’s why people get picked.
“Origin is a completely different type of football. Some players that play Origin aren’t good enough to play for Australia and some players who play for Australia haven’t got it to make it in Origin. It’s a completely different type of player that is required.”
Asked about injury concerns surrounding the squad, Stuart admitted he has concerns about the squad’s depth in 2011 and described Cooper’s retirement from rep football as having ‘left a bit of a gap there’ out wide.
But he said he also expected more from a number of incumbents and has recently spoken to them about their early season form.
“I won’t talk about selections but I’ve spoken to players that I feel need to lift the quality of their performances at the moment,” he said. “I’ve spoken to them – and they know.
“I mean, I’ve been as fair as I can with all of the clubs and the coaches, trying to keep a low key, but over the next month it will start to build up in regards to communication. Being an ex-coach I’m very aware of not poking my nose in too early – but there has been some contact.”
However, the former Cronulla coach was quick to defend himself over criticism of comments made last week in which he claimed he would be happy if NSW won just one game in this year’s State of Origin series.
Asked if his comments were simply a case of playing mind games, Stuart simply replied “Nope”, before adding “Anybody who knows me knows that I would love to win the series but this is about establishing a model going forward in regards to getting us back to dominance. We’ve had some very tough years against a very dominant, talented footy team. So people can take it how they want to take it.”
“The short-term objective, it would be great to win this year’s series – but long term it’s more important to get us back into a dominant position.”
While injuries and the form of some senior players has been of concern, Stuart said he had been buoyed by the performances of some NSW rising stars following the ‘Blues-in-waiting’ camp held in January.
“I’ve been impressed with quite a number of them, actually,” he said. “I don’t want to name all of them but to name a few – young Aaron Woods, Andrew Fifita, Ryan James, Nathan Gardner – they’ve really jumped up and have left the camp and taken the message that was delivered that they have to go back to their clubs and play like they want to represent their state one day.
“There are a lot of young blokes that have left the camp and moved forward.”
Late NRL news:
• Adding to Stuart’s woes, Roosters five-eighth Todd Carney has been ruled out of tomorrow night’s clash with Brisbane with a groin strain. Braith Anasta will move back to the halves;
• Brett Stewart will miss his third game in a row – also with a groin injury – when Manly meets the Warriors at Brookvale tomorrow. William Hopoate will fill in at the back;
• Bulldogs star Jamal Idris has been declared fit to play against Parramatta tonight after overcoming a corked thigh; and
• Broncos centre Ben Te’o has been ruled out for four weeks after x-rays revealed a hairline fracture in his forearm. A decision on his replacement for tomorrow night’s game will be made later today, with Dale Copley in the running.