Opportunity knocks for Origin hopefuls
The players have heard it all before.
Each year when the Country Origin team hosts the boys from City in regional New South Wales we are told that the game has lost its lustre.
Where once it was a genuine selection trial for NSW Origin spots it is now little more than an exhibition to service a rugby league nursery that has nurtured some of our greatest talents.
Only it isn't.
Each and every year players who have impressed at club level are given a taste of representative football and if they respond in the right fashion can earn an invitation to join the game's elite in the Origin arena.
The build-up to Sunday's AAMI Country-City clash at Tamworth's Scully Park was dominated early in the week by talk of who wasn't playing but Country coach Craig Fitzgibbon is adamant that the sell-out crowd will witness the birth of a number of future Origin stars.
"It would only be a pure Origin trial if everyone was available for selection but there are still positions available for guys to force their way into the team," Fitzgibbon said.
"I'm not sure how many positions Laurie [Daley, NSW coach] is looking at there but I know there are some guys that he's interested in.
"We've focussed on giving those guys a platform to stake a claim for the positions that are available.
"Whether Laurie's looking at utilities for the bench with some guys and all those power forwards are all knocking on the door. With the injury rates of forwards and suspensions you just never know when a position might open up.
"I'd like to think we can give all those guys an opportunity this weekend to stake a claim."
In 2014 eight players who participated in the Country-City fixture went on to play Origin for NSW that year while last year Daniel Tupou, Andrew Fifita, David Klemmer and Josh Jackson went from Wagga to a Blues jersey in the space of a month.
Early in the week City Origin coach Brad Fittler was exasperated at the number of withdrawals as he tried to piece together a team but even his inexperienced squad have players on the verge of something bigger.
Nathan Peats, Josh Mansour and Bryce Cartwright all have plenty to play for and Fittler is unsure whether any member of last year's Blues team should feel comfortable in their position.
"They got beat by 50 the last game they played so there's got to be a couple [of spots]," was Fittler's frank assessment.
"And if it's not next year or the first game it could be the second or the third or it could be the year after.
"They have to be motivated; I can't motivate them. The hunger has got to come from within. We make them aware there's an opportunity but they're the ones that have to accept that."
Country back-rower Boyd Cordner is probably the only player of the 34 playing on Sunday almost certain to be there in Game One for NSW on June 1 but he has got plenty of mates pushing their way into the frame.
Sharks pivot and Country skipper James Maloney can go a long way to an Origin recall with a polished performance, Tyson Frizell was 18th man for NSW in Game One last year and Jack Bird's utility value and growing experience makes him even more appealing with each year that passes.
"He can probably push in as a roving forward, he's quite a solid character and he's just a footballer," Maloney said of Bird who will start at five-eighth for Country on Sunday.
"He backs himself and plays off instinct and he's got natural footballing ability. That makes him dangerous no matter where he plays."