Mitchell Pearce’s continued desire to avoid talk of a State of Origin recall should help convince NSW coach Brad Fittler that the Blues would be better served by sticking with Nathan Cleary than taking a reluctant playmaker to Perth for a must-win match.
While the positions of Cleary and five-eighth Cody Walker have been under been under question since last week’s series-opening 18-14 loss, Fittler’s interchange tactics with his halves may have been a masterstroke if Dane Gagai hadn’t scored an intercept try.
Had interchange utility Jack Wighton found NSW winger Josh Addo-Carr with the intercepted pass, the scoreline may have been different, while Walker set up a try after returning from his stint on the bench late in the match.
Cleary and Walker have pleaded to be given a chance in the historic June 23 clash at Optus Stadium, whereas Pearce has repeatedly declined opportunities to firmly put his hand up for a Blues spot.
Standing in the tunnel at Mudgee’s Glen Willow Stadium after leading Newcastle to a stunning 45-12 defeat of St George Illawarra recently, Pearce was interviewed by a handful of journalists when the possibility of him being back in the frame for NSW selection was raised for the first time.
Match Highlights: Maroons v Blues
Pearce had just been awarded three Dally M points for the third consecutive week and Cleary was out-of-sorts in a Penrith team which at that stage had won just two of its opening 10 matches.
He has a combination with former Sydney Roosters teammates Boyd Cordner and Latrell Mitchell, who defend alongside each other on the left side of the ruck, and his 18 Origin appearances would make him the most experienced member of the Blues squad.
After missing NSW’s 2014 and 2018 series wins, Pearce’s recall would be a great redemption story if he finally achieved Origin success but the 30-year-old preferred to talk up the credentials of Cleary and South Sydney halfback Adam Reynolds.
Match: Maroons v Blues
Game 2 -
Venue: Optus Stadium, Perth
Pressed further, Pearce offered an insight into the toll that being unfairly blamed for NSW’s poor Origin record since he debuted in the 2008 series decider has taken.
"I don’t feel like I have to come here and talk myself up. I have played plenty of games. I haven’t had much success, it has been talked about for 10 years," Pearce said. "I am happy with my footy and I am comfortable with myself as a player.
"If the Blues want to go with me I am not going to say no, but I think Nathan Cleary would do a really good job and Adam Reynolds is playing great. I have got a responsibility here to lead the Knights and I am trying to do my very best with that."
In the wake of last Wednesday's result, his name has again been put forward for the NSW No.7 jersey but he has continued to back Cleary in the role.
Match Highlights: Rabbitohs v Knights
Fittler spoke to Pearce after his fourth consecutive man-of-the-match performance against the Roosters in round 11 and he was not considered for Origin I due to a groin injury, but there are some who suspect he’d prefer not to risk again being the scapegoat for a NSW defeat.
"I think Freddy would like to hear him say he wants to play," former NSW captain Paul Gallen told Channel Nine. "All the rumours were that he really didn’t want to play, that’s why he had the groin problem. Mitchell has copped some flak over the years he probably didn’t deserve."
Following after greatness
The scrutiny on the game’s leading playmakers can be so harsh that St George Illawarra halfback Ben Hunt last year felt the need to seek help from a psychologist to cope with vicious criticism over his performances for the Dragons and Maroons.
Hunt was even referred to as the "Mitchell Pearce of Queensland" after being ruthlessly attacked on social media for his decision-making in the dying stages of Origin II at ANZ Stadium, which NSW won 18-14 to clinch the series.
The relentless focus on playmakers in losing teams can be attributed to the brilliance of Andrew Johns for NSW and Johnathan Thurston for Queensland, but such comparisons are unfair given their greatness.
Since moving to Newcastle last season, Pearce is no longer burdened by the intense spotlight on his performances at the Roosters, has developed into a genuine leader for the Knights and is arguably in career-best form.
Sharks star Shaun Johnson is another playmaker whose enthusiasm for the game appears to have been revived by a change of clubs and it became apparent why he needed to move from New Zealand after winning man-of-the-match honours in last October’s Test win against Australia in Auckland.
"It’s just nice to be standing here talking to you guys after a positive win with the Kiwis," the former Warriors halfback said. "Obviously, a lot of the time I’m at the front when things aren’t going well."
In other words, Johnson's immediate reaction was relief after being targeted for blame during New Zealand's disappointing 2017 World Cup campaign when Kiwis failed to make the semi-finals following losses to Tonga and Fiji.
It is an understandable for a star playmaker who has been unfairly maligned to feel that way but Fittler needs players with a positive mindset and brimming with confidence about the challenge, particularly with a short preparation.
No time for change
The Blues won’t arrive in Perth until next Monday and may only have two field sessions ahead of their June 23 match at Optus Stadium so it is desirable for Fittler to keep changes to a minimum.
At this stage, Tom Trbojevic is expected to return to the team on the right wing in place of Nick Cotric, while Fittler must find a replacement for injured prop David Klemmer.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard put himself in contention for a recall after running 131 metres with the ball and making 31 tackles in a 53-minute stint from the interchange during Penrith’s 17-10 defeat of the Roosters on Sunday.
Brisbane’s Matt Lodge has also been mentioned as a front-row option but Campbell-Gillard played in last year’s Origin series, as did ever-dependable Cronulla veteran Matt Prior. North Queensland prop Jordan McLean is again out of contention with a hamstring injury.
McLean leaves field with hamstring injury
The loss of Klemmer may prompt Fittler to consider another middle forward in the place of second-rower Angus Crichton.
Melbourne’s Dale Finucane is continuing to push for selection after another strong performance in Saturday night’s 32-12 comeback win against the Warriors.
If Fittler was to make a change in the halves, veteran playmaker James Maloney would be the obvious choice as he was a key member of last year’s series win and plays alongside Cleary at Penrith each week.
Walker v Maloney
Maloney’s form in a struggling Panthers side did not warrant selection in Origin I but he starred in Sunday’s defeat of the Roosters, playing a role in all three of his team’s tries, kicking a field goal and producing a 40/20 kick.
However, Walker has been arguably the best player in the Telstra Premiership for the first half of the season and Fittler said the reason he was replaced was because the Blues were pinned down their own end of the field and Wighton is a bigger player who could help run the ball off the NSW line.
Therefore, it could be argued Maloney would have been no more effective than Walker in that situation and the injection of Wighton into the game helped NSW regain momentum, even with Latrell Mitchell in the sin bin.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Roosters
Where Maloney may have made a difference is his assertiveness around the ruck as Cleary and Walker allowed fullback James Tedesco and hooker Damien Cook to dominate a lot of the playmaking and were rarely able to combine.
When Walker returned in the 73rd minute he was dangerous and combined with South Sydney teammate Cameron Murray to put Jake Trbojevic over for a late try and Mitchell almost scored in the final minute of the game.
In the end, Wighton’s intercept pass proved costly but had Gagai not run 95 metres to score or if the Blues had managed another try in the dying stages Fittler would have been hailed for his interchange tactics.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.