On the eve of another test of Newcastle’s premiership credentials against Melbourne, coach Nathan Brown believes captain Mitchell Pearce is unaffected by the hype surrounding his likely Origin recall.
Pearce, who has steered Newcastle to a six-game winning streak and raced to the top of the Dally M Medal leader board, is expected to be named in the NSW team for Origin II as the Blues try to square the series in Perth on June 23.
The 30-year-old veteran of 18 Origin appearances has won only five of those games and has never played in a series-winning NSW team, but is understood to have convinced coach Brad Fittler he is the man to wear the No.7 jersey against Queensland on Sunday week.
Pearce ruled himself out of Origin I because of a groin strain, which he told Fittler about after inspiring Newcastle to a 38-12 victory over former club Sydney Roosters in Newcastle on May 24.
Brown said that was as strong an indication as any that Pearce’s priority was the Knights, who will try to end a six-game losing streak against the Storm at AAMI Park on Saturday.
“I think ‘Pearcey’ probably played his hand when Freddy came in after the Roosters game, and he said his groin was going to be fit to play Origin but he wasn’t going to be fit to train,” Brown said on Friday.
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“Pearcey probably showed that day that the Knights, and playing well for the Knights, is high on his priority list, but if he’s fit and well, all the same now, I think he’d love a shot at Origin if it comes.
“I think Pearcey knows his form’s good but his form’s good on the back of the team playing well, and off the back of a team playing well, players get other rewards, which is great.
“I’m not saying what they should or shouldn’t do, I just know that the way Pearcey’s playing, I’m sure he’d give a good account of himself given the right style of footy.
“But we’ve got a game against Melbourne this week, and the main thing for us as a club is that he’s focused on the Storm, because if you go to Melbourne and you’re 98 per cent focused, that won’t be good enough.”
Brown said Pearce was playing just as well for Newcastle last year until a ruptured pectoral muscle sidelined him for half the season “but this year he’s got some more quality and experienced players around him to help lighten the load a little bit”.
“When he set out this year, Mitchell’s goal was to take Newcastle to the best place we can go and any rewards off the back of that I’m sure he’d be happy with, but I think his main focus is the Knights,” Brown said.
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Newcastle have not beaten the Storm on Brown’s watch, losing their past six in a row including the past three meetings in Melbourne, but are buoyed by their recent drought-breaking success against the Rabbitohs and Roosters.
Newcastle broke a nine-game losing sequence against Souths last Friday and stopped a six-game skid against the Roosters a fortnight earlier, so they're entitled to feel a genuine chance against the Storm.
“We’ve been down there once or twice and got some touch-ups, and we had a real tight loss down there too, but I think we can certainly head down there optimistic that if we do what we do well, then we’ll certainly give ourselves a good shot,” Brown said.
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“We’ve obviously had a good period of footy for the last six or seven weeks and Melbourne have had a pretty good 15 years, so what we’ve been doing well for the past six weeks, they’ve been doing well for a long time.
“So we know we’ve got a big challenge ahead of us, but we’re also confident that if we do the things well that we’ve been doing well lately, then we’ll certainly give ourselves a shout.
“Our forwards have done a great job against both the Roosters and Souths packs, and they’ve both got packs similar to Melbourne, that have got highly decorated players and big players and very consistent players who play at the highest level, so we certainly need to get that right.”
Bench prop Josh King has not fully recovered from a badly corked thigh suffered three weeks ago and has been ruled out. Brown indicated Pasami Saulo, who played three minutes off the bench against Souths, would take King’s place in the interchange rotation.