Stat of Origin: Fittler turns to Panthers for NSW
Brad Fittler has gone back to his Riff roots to end Queensland's Origin domination, fielding a Panthers quartet that equals the largest representation of chocolate soldiers in Blues history.
Headed by the yin and yang halves pairing of James Maloney and Nathan Cleary, the inclusion of Penrith teammates Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tyrone Peachey matches the previous high water marks set by the western Sydney club.
Not since the mountain men's finest hours around the 1991 and 2003 premierships have the Panthers been so well represented – when the likes of Fittler and selection advisor Greg Alexander were lining up alongside Mark Geyer and John Cartwright in sky blue, and were then followed by club favourites Craig Gower and Luke Lewis well over a decade later.
With Fittler and Alexander calling the shots for the Blues this series, Penrith's ladder-leading form sees them trump the Dragons and Roosters (three players each) as the best represented NRL outfit in NSW colours.
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Penrith CEO Brian Fletcher praised Anthony Griffin's role in the Panthers' stunning start to 2018 despite a brutal injury toll, as well as the individual form of the club's most recent Blues graduates.
"They're all playing well and this is a reward for all their hard work," Fletcher told NRL.com.
"From our point of view it couldn't be better. Considering all the injuries we've had at the start of the season it's unbelievable where we are now and the rewards these guys have got with NSW selection are well deserved.
"Nathan Cleary being so young and so talented, it's great to see him get his chance and hopefully we've got the makings of a Blues halfback for the next decade."
Cleary's rise to Origin honours just four months after his 20th birthday draws parallels with Fittler's own path to the interstate arena as a Panthers prodigy.
Cleary's club connection with Maloney stretches right back to his days as ball boy when father Ivan coached the now-veteran half at the Warriors.
And it was the uber-impressive 28-2 demolition of St George Illawarra that secured the Panthers pair the sky blue scrumbase, with Fittler declaring that Roosters pivot Luke Keary was very much in the reckoning until Maloney and Cleary carved up the Dragons.
"I deliberately went out there to see how Nathan and James went," Fittler said after unveiling his first Blues team.
"It was a huge occasion out there at Penrith, 20,000 people and the atmosphere was fantastic. (It was a) great game and him and James were the two that steered their team around to a great result."
Along with the Panthers quartet taking centre stage at the MCG in next week's series opener, four members of Penrith's SG Ball winning side – Shawn Blore, Hayden Bonnano, Spencer Leniu and Maurice Trindall – have been named for the NSW under 18's for next Wednesday's curtain raiser.
Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Bronze tickets available from $49 here!