“Panic” under pressure in defence led Brad Fittler to hook NSW five-eighth Cody Walker with Origin I in the balance as his halves come into the firing line for a must-win return bout in Perth.
Queensland reeled in an 8-0 deficit to emerge 18-14 winners from Suncorp Stadium, with Walker benched after 56 minutes when the Blues held a slender 8-6 lead.
Walker struggled for impact in his first Origin as a 29-year-old rookie before Jack Wighton was called from the bench to shore up NSW’s left-edge defence alongside Latrell Mitchell.
Speaking after the loss that has Fittler staring down the barrel of his first series defeat, he pinpointed the Blues edge defence as the critical difference between the two sides.
Match Highlights: Maroons v Blues
“I don’t think we worked together that well on the edge in defence, we had some good players ask some good questions but I thought they weren’t asking good enough questions that we should have panicked like we did,” Fittler said.
“It’s not as though they had broken us up all over the field.
“Sometimes you get to games and you feel like you’re part of a wall. Other times you feel like you’re on your own. It felt like it looked like at stages they were on their own.”
Asked why he benched Walker and injected Wighton onto his left edge, Fittler said: “I felt like they’d won a big chunk of the second half and it felt like Cody was just struggling to get into the game. I think Jack did a brilliant job.
“It was a shame he threw an intercept but I thought prior to that his runs were great. Then as soon as we saw an opportunity to get Cody back on when we needed a few tries, he came on and did a great job.
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“He set up one try and looked dangerous for the rest of the game so I thought it worked well.”
With Queensland taking a 10-point lead Walker was re-installed in the middle for the Blues with eight minutes to go, but the Maroons held on for a famous win after a build-up dominated by focus on Kevin Walters’ pre-game strategies and the influence of coach whisperer Bradley Stubbs.
Much of the analysis will now centre around Fittler’s halves with Walker and Nathan Cleary struggling for cohesion.
Luke Keary’s untimely concussion issues will rule him out for the remainder of the Origin series, while Mitchell Pearce’s sparkling form for Newcastle has him in contention for a Blues recall.
Adam Reynolds can also push for inclusion having been cleared what was feared to be a fractured fibula on the eve of Fittler picking his game one squad, as can veteran Panthers five-eighth James Maloney.
Fittler was circumspect in his assessment of Cleary and Walker’s scrumbase combination.
"We didn’t use the ball as much as we would like to, Fittler said.
“Our combination is three or four games old. Sometimes as coaches you put a lot of pressure on, you’re playing with the best, to play this wonderful game of footy. Sometimes it’s a bit harder than that."
Elsewhere, Tom Trbojevic’s return for Manly this week will also likely shake up Fittler’s backline, and the coach said his players must perform at NRL level to prove to him they deserve to be retained for game two in Perth.
“They’ve got to go back and play for their club,” Fittler said.
“Our theories always been [to pick] blokes who play good for their club.”