St George Illawarra players have backed halfback Ben Hunt to bounce back from his demotion to the interchange for Queensland in next Wednesday night’s third State of Origin at Suncorp Stadium - but questioned the decision.
Hunt was moved from halfback to the bench utility role in the only unforced change to Kevin Walters' line-up from Origin II.
Dragons team-mates feel he has unfairly been made a scapegoat for the Maroons series defeat after kicking the ball dead against a 12-man NSW team.
"I don't really care what Queensland do, but I don't really agree with them putting him on the bench,'' hooker Cameron McInnes said.
"I thought in Game I he was their best player and footy is an 80-minute game so you have one of two plays that you probably want to take back but I don’t think he deserves to be put to the bench for that."
While the Dragons players are excited that second-rower Tariq Sims will finally make his Origin debut after being selected alongside Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin and Paul Vaughan in the NSW team, they were disappointed for Hunt.
"I thought he deserved to keep his starting spot and I'm sure the other boys did too," centre Tim Lafai told reporters at WIN Stadium on Monday.
McInnes said Hunt had showed what he is capable of by laying on a 74th-minute try for Euan Aitken with a perfectly weighted grubber kick that inspired the Dragons to a 20-18 defeat of Parramatta last Thursday night.
Hunt had made a number of errors earlier in the game but he still had the courage to try the kick for Aitken on the same tackle (the third) and in almost identical field position as the one he had put dead in Origin II.
"He is one of the more laidback players I have played with," McInnes said in response to questions about whether the Origin demotion would rattle Hunt’s confidence.
"He is a great player and in terms of going forward for the Dragons I can't wait to have him back playing alongside me every week because he is a great player and as you saw last Thursday night when he put that kick through for Euan Aitken, anything is possible.
"He is just a footballer and whatever they decide to do with him he is going to do his best and come up with some magic because that is the player he is. He deserves to be starting but the type of guy he is ... he won't complain, which is the best thing about him."
McInnes praised the selection of Sims on the interchange for the Blues after he was 18th man in Origin I and II and there is an expectation in the Dragons camp that he will start as the left second rower if NSW captain Boyd Cordner is ruled out.
"I reckon week to week he has been our most consistent all year and that is a great reward for him," McInnes said. "He is very tough, he runs the ball hard and is quite aggressive in defence. I don’t think anyone deserves it any more than him."
The unavailability of St George Illawarra's Origin stars will force coach Paul McGregor to name a new-look forward pack, as well as a halfback, for Thursday night’s match against Melbourne at AAMI Park.
Jacob Host is expected to retain his place as right second-rower after deputising for Frizell in last week’s win over Parramatta, while New Zealand forward Leeson Ah Mau is likely to return for either Vaughan or De Belin.
McGregor must decide where to play utility Kurt Mann, who has started the last three matches on the wing but can also play halfback or the left second-row spot made vacant by Sims' Origin call-up.
Luciano Leilua is a more likely option at left second-row, while Darren Nichols is in line for his NRL debut at halfback.
Rookie prop Blake Lawrie is again expected to play after replacing Ah Mau on the interchange bench for the Eels clash, along with back-rower Hame Sele.