Manly coach Trent Barrett has launched a stinging defence of maligned Blues utility Dylan Walker while the man vying for the same Blues bench spot as Walker for Origin II, Bryce Cartwright, heaped praise on his weekend opponent.
Arguably no single game over Round 14 had as much bearing on the make-up of the NSW team to be named on Monday night as the Manly-Penrith clash at Brookvale Oval on Sunday, with two of the key candidates for the vexed utility bench spot showing their full bag of tricks.
Blues coach Laurie Daley's selection raised eyebrows ahead of Game One – more so when he was unable to find a good time to inject the Manly playmaker until the final 10 minutes.
Walker himself has been unfairly criticised – while he did produce one error late in the game the fact he wasn't able to come onto the field late in his Origin debut and find a match-winning play against a near-unstoppable Queensland side should not be his burden to bear.
But with Walker as a specialist back it would have been tough to bring him on anywhere in the forwards, especially in a side packed with big-minute middle men. However it raises the question as to whether a utility back-rower may have been able to be brought on earlier in the event that (as was the case) there were no injuries in the backs that needed to be covered.
Walker produced a blinding first half against Penrith, with two tries showcasing his full range of speed, footwork and short kicking abilities, while he finished the match with an eye-watering 11 tackle busts.
The man many consider tailor-made for that bench role, skilled Penrith back-rower Bryce Cartwright, then starred in the second 40 as Penrith ran down Walker's Sea Eagles and the nephew of Penrith legend and Manly assistant coach John Cartwright finished with a lofty seven offloads as well as helping create two crucial tries.
After the game, Cartwright leapt to praise the man who beat him to the Blues utility role in Origin I.
"I thought Dylan Walker played outstanding tonight, I thought he was the best player on the field so he did well and we'll just see what happens," Cartwright said after engineering his team's comeback 31-24 win.
"I'm just trying to play my best footy for Penrith."
Prompted as to whether his move to the halves may help sway Daley to choose him as a utility, he added: "I've played there before, I just had the six on my back for the first time. I've played there the past three seasons when I've had to. I guess I can play anywhere I need to."
Asked about the steep criticism surrounding Walker's selection in the Blues' narrow 6-4 loss on June 1, Barrett didn't hold back.
"I thought it was ridiculous the criticism that he got after Game One. He had nine minutes on the field, what did you want him to do?" Barrett started.
"You (the media) criticise Laurie, you would have criticised Laurie if he didn't pick a utility on the bench and we got an injury in the backs in the first two minutes so you can't have it both ways.
"Dylan Walker's a good player and he's a competitor and all the players in my side do compete. It's not an individual thing… Dylan Walker's a footballer."
The other man in the spotlight, Blues and Penrith fullback Matt Moylan, performed pretty well but also had a few mistakes and on balance had a lesser game than that produced by his rival for the sky blue No.1 jersey in Wests Tigers fullback James Tedesco on Friday night.
While Tedesco's return from injury was a triumphant one, Moylan's effort against Manly was similar to his Origin I outing – some great moments mixed with some errors he'd like over again. A slick cut-out pass created one of the tries in Penrith's comeback and he helped stop a rampaging Tom Trbojevic from scoring a try that would have sealed the deal for Manly. On the other hand he threw a loose pass to concede possession at a bad time during Manly's early onslaught and he could have done more to stop Walker scoring the opening try of the match.
If Daley were to pick the Origin II team purely on Round 14 form there is no doubt Tedesco would get the nod but if you take continuity from Game One into account it could go either way. If Tedesco does get the nod Moylan then enters the frame for the same utility slot being contested by Walker and Cartwright.
Elsewhere, Josh Mansour was a little quiet but scored an important try and didn't shirk the tough runs and is in no danger of losing his spot after a strong debut while discarded Blues forward Trent Merrin was his usual consistent self but is unlikely to be considered for a recall.