Everyone remembers the breakthrough series win by the NSW Origin team in 2014, with halves Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds key to that result.
But the next year selectors overlooked that combination, saying that form was the prerequisite for changing the halves combo to Hodkinson and Mitchell Pearce. It didn’t work out all that well for the Blues.
So there’s two arguments here when we start debating whether incumbents Nathan Cleary and James Maloney, who won back the Origin shield in 2018, should be retained.
There’s the pick-and-stick theory because these two players were successful last year, or there’s the current-form argument – go with players who are playing better right now.
For me pick-and-stick is the Queensland way, but I understand the arguments for swapping around.
However pick-and-stick is all about established combinations, cohesion, familiarity with each other.
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Maloney and Cleary played a whole series together last year, so the systems that NSW coach Brad Fittler brought in then won’t be changing much.
There will be that understanding in how they play best and how Freddy likes them to play. So it takes less preparation, because there’s less to learn, when they get into camp if you pick-and-stick.
That time can now be spent on more improvement in the attack and defence structures set up from the previous year.
The other argument on form brings up players like Cody Walker and Luke Keary.
The left-side of the Roosters is doing a fantastic job. So NSW again would spend less time trying to forge those combinations if Keary steps in.
He already connects with Boyd Cordner, Latrell Mitchell and I’d consider putting Daniel Tupou out on the left wing, along with fullback James Tedesco, and that gives you an edge that’s been tested and working a treat in club land.
I’d move Josh Addo-Carr over to the vacant right wing of Tom Trbojevic.
It doesn’t matter if you put Keary at No.7 or No.6 – he’d play on the left side to continue in the rep arena what’s been doing so well in the Telstra premiership.
The Cody Walker argument is strong because he’s playing such good footy – nine tries in eight games, with seven try assists says it all.
But when you’re talking combination and cohesion, then you’re looking at the Roosters left edge. Walker is obviously more familiar with the Rabbitohs left edge, and it would take time for him to pick up that virtual sixth sense with new teammates.
I’d be keeping Nathan Cleary as the No.7. He plays on the right with the Panthers, he was the NSW halfback last year, he has a great kicking game, he’s good defensively, and he’s a goal-kicker.
Latrell Mitchell has the highest number of goals in the NRL, but Cleary has the higher percentage at 90 per cent, compared with 78 per cent for Mitchell.
The other option, if you’re talking about combinations and familiarity in knowing each other’s game, is to put Rabbitohs pair Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker together.
Reynolds already has Origin experience and there’s no doubt these two halves are doing great things for their club. The Rabbitohs lead the NRL in possession and engaging the line.
But again, the Walker-Reynolds partnership would have to learn how to work with the rest of the NSW team so that’s time taken up there.
Game I of an Origin series is very important, that’s why in my mind the pick-and-stick really does work because there’s less ‘talking’ around your preparation and more ‘doing’.
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I’d just like to say at this point, that as the Australian coach there have been no instructions from me to either Freddy or Queensland coach Kevin Walters. They have their own team of selectors so it’s their prerogative to come up with who they think is best.
My thoughts are still that the Origin series is the stepping stone to Test football.
I picked the Australian team last year for our matches against New Zealand and Tonga on the success of the Blues side. I liked their combination. There were nine who played for NSW in 2018, plus I brought in Aaron Woods, Jordan McLean and Luke Keary.
So I will try and stick to that squad as much as I can, pending any injuries or suspensions, when we’re putting together the 2019 team to face New Zealand in Wollongong and Tonga in Auckland.
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