Billy the Kid is back from what many – including myself – imagined to be a career ending string of shoulder injuries and he’s in form and flying. His sterling record of outstanding service to Queensland ensures that after missing series 2016 he regains his rightful spot as Queensland’s back line custodian.
This pushes the equally brilliant Darius Boyd to the wing, and he’ll be partnered on the other flank by the incredibly talented youngster Valentine Holmes. The Cronulla flyer’s Origin debut may well have been delayed a year thanks to an ill-judged night on the drink, but his career in the Maroon jersey will endure for the next decade.
Gagai has been carrying a hapless Knights team on his shoulders since round 1 and richly deserves selection at centre, moving in from the wing to fill the vacant starting spot in the side due to Inglis’ season-ending injury. Will Chambers has got his groove back after a sluggish spell in Rugby a couple of seasons back during which he all but forget what a decent ball was thanks to the ineptness of the Reds halves, and his scintillating form in attack and devastating defence this season make him a certain selection in the Queensland side.
Thurston – the best player ever in the history of the game – plays if he’s fit, but if he’s not you can throw all the slow news week speculation about the return to 5/8 of the flaky Cherry-Evans or the elevation of the brilliant in attack but defensively still-developing Milford out the window because JT’s halves partner at the Cowboys Michael Morgan will be wearing the Maroon number six and Milford will play his first Origin from the bench as Queensland’s back line utility.
If God does somehow perform a miracle and plays Morgan will take the bench spot and the necessity for three interchange forwards in the modern game will mean that Milford will have to wait a little while longer to kick off what no-one doubts will be a long and stellar State of Origin career.
Papaalii if he stays off the piss. Tick.
Thaiday off the bench. Tick.
That leaves Queensland coach Kevin Walters with three forward spots to decide – by my reckoning one in the starting side and two interchanges – and faced with two terrible conundrums that no-one envies.
The first is the Nate Myles question.
Myles has been an outstanding player for Queensland for near on a decade, an absolute legend who has given his heart and soul for his State and put his body on the line every time he has stepped out on the turf with his mates. Myles blood runs Maroon and he has been such a staunch pillar of the the most outstanding side in Origin history that even a sly king hit from Gallen couldn’t knock him down.
But time waits for no man and there are plenty of youngsters knocking at the door. The dilemna for Walters is does he do a Wayne Bennett on Wally Lewis and move a legend on or does he let Myles decide himself the time his reign in the Queensland jersey will end and pick him again for the 2017 series?
The latter option would be a huge gamble, for the history of sport is littered with the shadows of once great men whose passion and self-belief rendered them blind to the clock of ages and unable to call time. Think Michael Jordan at the Washington Wizards, or Ali playing the role of punching bag for the mediocre Trevor Berbick, or Mike Tyson being chopped down by a bum named Kevin Rooney (who?) and you’ll realise the terrible truth that Waters finds himself facing.
It’s incredibly difficult for anyone who’s been watching the footy this season to argue that the passage of age doesn’t seem to have slowed Myles down.
The stats tell the tale.
While Nate’s running metres remain roughly the same as in previous seasons, the fact is that throughout his career Myles never really made huge yards; his game has been based on a huge motor, a high hit-up rate, and making a mountain of tackles every time he plants his boots on the park.
And therein lies Walter’s dilemna, because this season Myles hit-up rate has fallen by 20% and his tackle count has plummeted through the floor, to the point that he’s now averaging only 8.5 hit ups and making less than 20 tackles a game.
To put it in perspective NSW’s certain starting prop Andrew Fifita is running on average 151 metres, hitting the ball up 18.5 times and chopping down nearly 30 opposition defenders every time he takes the field.
Aaron Woods numbers before he got injured were 155, 16 and 25.
Josh McGuire’s are 156, 17, and 38.
Are Myles 2017 numbers enough to justify him retaining his place in the Maroon side, or does Kevvie Walters have to make the coach’s call that no-one envies and cut the great man from the side?
Unfortunately the answers are no and yes.
Myles stellar State of Origin career is over, and Jaarod Wallace’s patient wait for a crack at the big game is too, because the 25-year-old Gold Coast prop – 139, 15 and 35 – takes the legend’s spot and steps into his huge shoes. I’m 100% confident that he’ll fill them too.
Napa assumes Scott’s spot in the pack due to the big man’s injury enforced absence but that creates a spot on the bench, and in a classic case of cometh the hour, cometh the man the meteoric rise of Coen Hess, the young Cowboy’s buck playing his first full season in the NRL, reaches its inevitable zenith and the boy/man Goliath steps straight into the side before he’s even turned 21.
That leaves Walters with just the Aidan Guerra v Jacob Lillyman as interchange utility forward question to solve, and it’s a dead set toss of the coin, and the key will be what type of weapon Walters is looking to add to Queensland’s arsenal for while both are elite level forwards they are very different types of players.
Lillyman is a workhorse cut from the Sam Thaiday mould, the sort of unassuming back-rower who will put in all night and still be putting in when dawn breaks, and though he might have topped the hill and be starting to head down the other side at age 33 the Warrior’s stalwart is still racking up big numbers – 134, 14 and 24.
Guerra on the other hand, 4 years his rival’s junior and with 4 Origin matches less in his resume than Lillyman, is a player cut from Trevor Gillmeister’s cloth, an axeman who tallies his success not by counting hit ups or metres made but by the number of blokes in opposition jerseys he cuts down. The Rooster’s hard man may only run 95 metres a game and hit the ball up 11 times but he makes a monumental 33 tackles a game and strikes fear into the opposition’s attack’s heart.
It’s for that reason that I give him the nod an inch in front of Lillyman, and although it breaks my heart into pieces in the process end the representative career of one of the great unsung heroes of Queensland’s 21st century State of Origin success.
Time waits for no man however, and all good things must one day come to an end.
Queensland’s won’t this year though, not with the squad I’ve selected.
New South Wales
Tedesco is in outstanding form in a misfiring Tiger’s team and is a certainty to be one of the first players picked, in his preferred position of fullback.
His main rivals for the number one jersey Moylan and Hayne slot in on the flanks. The pair can play any position across the back line at the top level other than halfback, affording NSW coach Laurie Daley the flexibility to switch the backs mid-game to unsettle the Maroons, and to cover for any mid-match injuries. There is no place for the enigmatic Dylan Walker, whose at times suspect defence is too much of a risk against the attacking brilliance of the Queensland centre pair.
The former Roosters pairing of Maloney and Pearce are the halves. Maloney is Mr Dependable at Origin level, and despite nagging ongoing doubts about Pearce’s ability to control a game at the elite level the Blues selector’s favorite son is in red hot form for the Roosters and, outside of taking a punter’s gamble on Moylan at 5/8, the paucity of talent in the NSW halves ranks doesn’t leave Daley with many other viable options.
Fifita, Cordner, Graham, and Frizzel are all high class players at the top of their games and are no-brain selections in the pack. Farah has long been a loyal servant for NSW, and the Souths rake has played himself back into form in recent weeks after struggling in the first few rounds at his new club. He gets the nod at hooker over the promising but as yet untested at this level Nathan Peats. leaving Daley with the quandary of which big bopper to select as Fifita’s front row partner in the pack.
Tamou, Klemmer and Jackson are the contenders and all while all three are certainties to wear a Blues jersey in the first game, only one of them can be selected in the starting side. There’s only a split hair between the trio but I’d plump for Tamou, purely on the basis that the other pair have proven lethal in the past on the rotation, and Klemmer and Jackson’s fresh legs off the interchange bench will give NSW a strong attacking platform that will test the Queensland defence all night long.
19-year-old Nathan Cleary is an emerging superstar of the game and richly deserves selection for his Origin debut off the bench. Don’t be surprised to see him enter the game early if the Maroon back rowers target Pearce and put him off his game, and lookout Queensland if he does because when it comes to talent this kid’s got it all. It may or may not be a year too early for him at the elite level but after being smashed up for decades NSW can’t afford to die wondering, and take the tip this young Panthers half is a dead-set Wally Lewis in the making.