Damien Cook concedes Souths teammate Cody Walker "struggled" with the intense lead-up to his Origin debut but insists he has earned a return bout against Queensland with the series on the line.
Walker was subbed off by Brad Fittler with Origin I in the balance as he battled to impose himself on the contest, and on Saturday faces Penrith's James Maloney in what is being billed as a shootout for the sky blue No.6 jersey.
The Rabbitohs' decision to rest Walker last weekend means he has just the one game against the Panthers, Maloney and NSW No.7 Nathan Cleary before Fittler picks his side for Origin II.
Cook says the 29-year-old deserves to be judged on his impressive NRL form over the last 18 months, not just his 66-minute outing at Suncorp Stadium.
But Cook admitted the 11-day build up to game one, which involved far more media attention and commitments than a regular week in clubland, may have proved a distraction for Walker.
Match: Maroons v Blues
Game 2 -
Venue: Optus Stadium, Perth
"I think he's responded really well," Cook said on Wednesday.
"I think he probably struggled with the attention of playing his first Origin game and getting all those compliments on how well he was playing.
"He probably struggled to take that on board more than what he's doing now. He's taken [the Origin fallout] really well.
Rabbitohs teammates respond to Gagai rumours
"But moving forward I think he's playing some really good footy, he's earned his spot and deserves all the attention he's getting."
NSW will have a shortened lead-in to the standalone Origin in Perth on June 23, with the week's preparation potentially leading Fittler to stick by his under-fire halves pairing.
Calls for Knights skipper Mitchell Pearce to be given another shot at Origin continue to gather momentum while utility Jack Wighton – who replaced Walker at Suncorp – is a wildcard option for the Blues at five-eighth.
Walker will be partnered by youngster Adam Doueihi against the Panthers as Adam Reynolds continues to recover from a fracture in his lower back.
Maloney and Cleary, meanwhile, both enjoyed a welcome return to form in Penrith's last-start upset of the Roosters.
Cleary has already gone on the record declaring Maloney gets the best out of him as a playmaking partner, but was careful not to disparage Walker in the same breath.
"I thought Nath and Maloney played a really good game together [against the Roosters]," Cook said.
"Jimmy does a lot of the creative stuff and Nath's very strong in defence. He helps guide the team around and allows Maloney to do that.
"They're going to be a really hard challenge this week and their confidence will be up from last week.
"I think James takes his chances. Last year's series he was very good for us and [was] a big reason why we won the series.
"I think Jimmy will put a kick in or throw a pass, last year he threw an intercept but he didn't go away from that. He'll back himself to do it again.
"One thing he does, if he makes an error he doesn't shy away from making a big play again. That's why it's one of his best traits."