He famously asked his players to stand down from club football this weekend ahead of the upcoming State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium on July 6, but New South Wales coach Ricky Stuart has admitted today that he doesn’t expect any to take his advice.
Angered by a scheduling hiccup that will see the blockbuster clash between St George Illawarra and Manly take place on Monday night – 24 hours after Stuart announces his squad for Game Three – the Blues’ coach told NRL.com that he was more than happy for players to take their place for their club sides this weekend.
However, he insisted that he had spoken at length with a number of those involved in Monday’s clash, with none pleased about the circumstances under which they have been forced to prepare for the biggest game of the year.
“I’m not expecting any players to stand down nor would I expect them to want to,” Stuart said. “They’ve got jobs to do and games to win. It’s not the players’ responsibility here and it’s not the coaches’. It just takes a bit of forward thinking and being proactive towards players’ welfare.
“I’ve had a lot of feedback from the players and I think that Game Three deserves more. I mean, I don’t see referees backing up after an Origin match. Are they more important?”
Stuart’s request for players to stand down this week received some unlikely support from club coaches last week, with both St George Illawarra’s Wayne Bennett and Manly’s Des Hasler admitting that they understood his dilemma.
In reality, Stuart’s primary objective at the time was to highlight what he says is absurd Round 16 scheduling, and his frustration hasn’t waned in the seven days since.
While the NRL has announced relief with changes scheduled from next year, that hasn’t aided the current campaign.
“We all knew St George was going to carry a lot of players going into Origin,” Stuart said.
“I don’t even know who does the scheduling but in the modern day, it seems to me that we don’t even care about the players anymore. It’s all about how the game’s going.
“We’re biting ourselves in the arse. We can’t afford to lose two or three players out of each team because the quality of the actual competition drops. They seem to think that if someone gets injured you can just replace them – well you can’t replace an Origin player. It just doesn’t happen.
“I wish the Players’ Union had a strong voice, but obviously they haven’t.”
The Blues have a raft of injury concerns heading into the State of Origin decider – namely Dragons duo Ben Creagh and Beau Scott who both missed last week’s loss to Brisbane. Creagh has been named to face the Sea Eagles this week but Scott remains absent with a knee injury and is in serious doubt to take his place for NSW.
Stuart also faces some tough decisions out wide, with both of his left-side centres in Michael Jennings (Game One) and Will Hopoate (Game Two) sidelined, while first-choice fullback Josh Dugan has again been ruled out of the Canberra line-up this week and is unlikely to be fit in time for Origin.
“Injuries are my biggest concern at the moment and with the number of players playing on Monday night, this week our preparation will be a little bit different because of the time we have to start training,” Stuart said.
“The other concern is that they’ll be going into an unknown place in regards to getting them up from Game Two. We did it after Game One but whether that can happen again is yet to be seen.
“We face a lot of adversity. We name the team on Sunday night but I don’t get all of my players until after Monday night. It will be a big night up there too in terms of how big the celebrations will be for Locky’s last game. I know how much the Queenslanders will lift and pick up.”
Stuart’s own future has been the subject of much speculation following his successful return to the Origin arena this year, with rumours linking him to the Bulldogs in 2012.
Stuart began his coaching career in the lower grades at Canterbury in 2001 but said that speculation he was in line to replace under-siege coach Kevin Moore at the club next year was wide of the mark.
“It’s just that – speculation,” he said. “My name keeps getting thrown up but there is nothing to it. I haven’t spoken to anyone. As far as I’m concerned I’ve got a job to do, which is for NSW.”