Two of the Blues’ greatest ever fullbacks Garry Jack and Brett Mullins have singled out Brett Stewart as the man to don the New South Wales No.1 jersey this year, insisting the Manly star’s form and fitness place him ahead of the multitude of contenders for State of Origin I on May 23.
Despite the return of Josh Dugan from injury last weekend and strong challenges from both incumbent Anthony Minichiello and St George Illawarra’s Brett Morris, Jack and Mullins both labelled Stewart the most in-form of the eligible fullbacks and believe his try-scoring ability can go a long way towards ending Queensland’s six-year dominance.
“I think he deserves the spot,” Jack told NRL.com ahead of Sunday’s team announcement for the series opener. “His form has been good and he is getting back to his best that he was a couple of years ago.
“He is a good defender, he can score points and is pretty safe under the high ball. He’s got an all-round game but he can find the tryline. Billy [Slater] can find the tryline, so Brett is up there with him.”
“I think the two contenders have to be Stewart and Minichiello but Stewart has probably been the standout this year,” the former Canberra and Sydney Roosters flyer said.
“He is just a very consistent player. He had some adversity to come through but he’s done that and he is playing some good footy again. It was always going to take him a while to get over those injuries he had, but I think he has started to find his old form. A spot in Origin might boost him even more. I know he would give 110 per cent.”
Jack, who played 17 games for the Blues between 1984-89, said he had been impressed by the form of both Minichiello and Morris this season but believed NSW coach Ricky Stuart should look closely at his combinations, with the prospect of Brett and Glenn Stewart playing together on the right and the Morris brothers teaming up on the left edge giving the side a huge advantage.
“It would be good if they picked the Stewart boys and the Morris boys. That would be good for NSW,” he said.
“We’ve had brothers play before – but never two lots of brothers. There is a lot of synergy in that, which we need if we’re going to match this great Queensland team. It’s really important for us.”
Like many of their key positions, NSW selectors have struggled to find a permanent custodian in recent years, with form and injury preventing them from matching the stability of their Queensland counterparts. In total the Blues have tried five different players at fullback since 2008, including both Dugan and Minichiello last season.
Dugan’s selection for the opening game in 2011 was met with plenty of excitement south of the border given his devastating club form for Canberra but he has struggled with injury since and neither Jack nor Mullins believe he is worth the risk while carrying a dislocated shoulder.
“If you’re looking for fitness, do you really want to be going into the first game under some injury clouds?” Mullins asked.
“It would be very tough (playing with injury) – and it would be tested out in Origin, too. You don’t want to be going in and being forced off 20 minutes into the game, that’s for sure.”
“Yep, [he] has had the injury and has been out for a few weeks,” added Jack. “I don’t think he has done enough. He played the first game last year but that was a long time ago now. If you’re picking on current form then he wouldn’t be a serious contender, I wouldn’t have thought.”
Reflecting Parramatta’s disastrous start to 2012, Mullins said that Jarryd Hayne had forgotten why he has been such a dangerous player for the Eels in the past and couldn’t be considered for the NSW fullback role until he picked up his running game.
“That’s what he has to go back to, instead of dancing around,” Mullins said. “He needs to be running at the defence at pace and using his footwork and speed instead of dancing around.
“The fullback’s job is to make as much ground up-field as you possibly can to help the forwards out. Dancing around at the back when he gets the ball isn’t helping them at all.”
Asked about Hayne, Jack said: “He just doesn’t do enough off the ball for me.
“I’m concerned about his form. He needs to work harder.”
Blues selectors sit down on Sunday night to pick their team for Game One, with a number of other key positions still to be decided including five-eighth and hooker.
Todd Carney looks to have cemented his debut in the sky blue with a whirlwind opening nine weeks at five-eighth for Cronulla, while Knights stalwart Danny Buderus’ ongoing Achilles tendon may leave Ricky Stuart with few options other than Wests Tigers skipper Robbie Farah in the No.9.