Fitzgibbon backs Sharks duo to wear a different shade of blue
With plenty of intrigue surrounding the NSW State of Origin halves combination, Country Origin coach Craig Fitzgibbon has endorsed his side's halfback James Maloney as someone who could solve the Blues' playmaker conundrum.
Maloney played all three games in the 2013 State of Origin campaign, winning the series-opener before losing the next two to hand the Maroons what was their eighth straight series win and hasn't worn Blue since.
This will be Maloney's third appearance for Country after steering his side to victory in 2013 and 2015 and his selection this year comes as no surprise after helping guide his new side, the Sharks, to equal first on the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder after nine rounds.
Known for his jocular nature off the field, Maloney has developed into a leader under the tutelage of hard-heads Paul Gallen and Michael Ennis at Cronulla, and it's that newfound maturity that made it an easy choice for Fitzgibbon to name him skipper.
"He's playing exceptional [football] for the Sharks and knowing him from my time at the Roosters I can only tell you how excited he is to play," Fitzgibbon said.
"I remember as soon as he found out that I'd got the job he was straightaway 'don't forget me'.
"Jimmy is a larrikin but he played his way straight into the team. He did a fantastic job last year and he'll be captain again this year."
Fitzgibbon supported the 29-year-old when asked if he thought Maloney had shown enough in 2016 to earn a State of Origin recall.
"If he can steer the team around like he did last year for the CRL then you'd like to think he'd put himself in strong position."
Partnering Maloney in the halves for the second year in a row will be Cronulla teammate Jack Bird, who will return to position he made his own in his breakout first season in the NRL.
Bird was named the 2015 NRL Rookie of the Year after a stellar season that saw him score eight tries from 23 appearances, but has somewhat ironically been shifted to the centres this year to accommodate Maloney's arrival in the Shire.
Fitzgibbon had no hesitation in naming the 21-year-old in the halves for Sunday's clash in Tamworth, and was hopeful his experience in different positions would only make him a more dangerous prospect for City to handle.
With plenty of Origin jerseys still up for grabs, Fitzgibbon believes Bird has what it takes to handle rugby league's biggest stage, telling media that the two-time Country representative would be an ideal candidate to fill NSW's utility role.
"He played five-eighth in his debut season last year and we all saw how well that went," the Country coach said.
"My reasons for picking him at five-eighth were to get him involved as much as possible and I just felt that was the best fit to have a combination with 'Jimmy' and also hopefully give Jack an opportunity to press for a NSW spot as well.
"He's obviously got some utility value, but if I can give him an opportunity different to what he's playing for his club then that will strengthen his case and that was the thought behind that."