Coach's Box: Pearce and Gidley for Blues halves
Next week's City-Country could well determine some key positions for the NSW Origin team, in particular who plays hooker, but there are two spots I would pick right now – Mitchell Pearce at halfback and Kurt Gidley as five-eighth and captain.
While the 1, 6, 7 and 9 are a little contentious for the Blues, regardless of how they play this weekend or next Friday in the City-Country or Test matches, Pearce and Gidley should be the halves pairing for this year's Origin series. And I would have Jarryd Hayne at fullback.
The Blues have adopted Queensland's philosophy with Ricky Stuart as full-time coach, and I think they should also follow another Maroon philosophy of not worrying about how people are playing at club level or how their team is going.
While the Roosters haven't had a great start to the season with just two wins, Pearce played Origin last year and played well at the back end of the season; he's tough, strong and a good defender. And with Pearce's team-mate Todd Carney not available, I would pick Gidley at five-eighth.
Again the Knights haven't started the season remarkably well, but Gidley is so consistent and reliable. While he is often chosen as a utility and probably will get selected in that role for the Test against New Zealand on Friday week, he has been playing five-eighth for his club and would be great there for the Blues.
The same could be said of Hayne and the Eels, but coming off an enforced rest for his two-game suspension may be a good thing for Hayne for Origin.
While Cameron Smith picks himself for Queensland as hooker, our blokes are hard to separate. I keep changing my mind on whether Michael Ennis or Robbie Farah would be the best choice. Ennis probably has the edge for me at the moment but there is an argument for both. It will come down to how Ricky wants to play them.
While I said individual and team form don't neccessarily count for Origin selection, the Bulldogs are going well and Ennis is a major reason for that. With Farah, when he has played rep footy in the past he doesn't do as much as he does with the Wests Tigers. He needs to take a more dominant role like Cameron Smith does.
The City-Country game will be important for Ennis and Farah: you don't necessarily get yourself into the Origin team playing in City-Country, but you can play yourself out of it with a below-par performance.
With Queenslanders likely to dominate the Test team (to be named Sunday) – at least 11 of the 17 spots – the next best 34 players in the country who are not Queenslanders will be playing City-Country. That makes me excited.
City-Country is a great tradition that should always be part of the rugby league calendar. Although I have coached NSW and City, I have spent a fair bit of time living in Queensland (as former Cowboys coach and now with Wynnum Manly) and it is interesting hearing their take on the match. They think City-Country is great because NSW players belt each other around then back up a few weeks later for Queensland to bash them around again.
I think there should always be a place for it. All players have rep footy goals. Everyone in club footy wants to win a premiership but only one team can – but everyone can share in the spoils of rep footy and do want to represent whether it is City, Country, NSW, QLD or Australia.
The best players should be picked, whether they are in contention for Origin or not. This game breathes life into country footy; it leaves excitement in the country. They want to watch the next best lot of players outside of the Test team play and to see their enthusiasm for the town they are playing in.
Coaches and clubs need to put self-interest aside and be really supportive of players playing rep footy – even though they are potentially losing a player for their next match or there is a chance of injury.
When I was under-23s coach at the Panthers I always wanted my players to get the chance to play up a grade; and the same was the case in the NRL. I wanted them to get selected and I was always excited when players made rep teams. I would send them texts or ring them. When they were back with the club we would make a big deal of them and let them know how proud everyone was of them.
The media will always say it doesn't mean as much to the City players as it does to the Country players, but as a former City coach I know they were all very proud to earn a rep jersey.
I remember one year playing at Wagga when City won and John Skandalis was named man of the match. John didn't get named in the Origin team but he was very proud of that award and his performance for City.