Daly Cherry-Evans will make his long awaited return to the Origin arena next Wednesday night, but you can’t help but feel Kevin Walters has missed a prime opportunity.
Cherry-Evans has been an outcast from the Queensland sanctum since 2015, though following Ben Hunt’s questionable decisions in Game II, returns at halfback in a bid to lock down the role.
But with New South Wales having already claimed victory, Kevin Walters has two ways of looking at Game III, a dead rubber.
Firstly, he could pick the strongest side at his disposal, and restored faith in the Queensland jersey by avoiding a clean sweep. Short term solution.
On the other hand, Kevvie could run a risk, and present a handful of players their maiden Queensland jersey, and see how they handle themselves in the Origin arena. Long term solution.
Players like Ash Taylor.
There is no doubt that Ash Taylor is destined to feature in State of Origin in the coming years, he already leads the league in try assists, and possesses one of the best kicking games in the NRL right now.
Cherry-Evans has been in the Origin cauldron before. Walters knows what he’s getting, he knows what to expect from the Manly captain. So with the series winner already decided, why not take a risk, and set yourself up for 2019.
Sure, three years is a long time in rugby league. Cherry-Evans is not the same man, and not the same player, he was in 2015. But instead of throwing him back in the halfback jersey and demoting Ben Hunt to the bench, leave Hunt out, debut at Taylor at halfback, and let Cherry-Evans ease back into a once fledging representative career.
Laurie Daley was faced with a similar decision in 2016. After losing Game I and Game II, the Blues returned to home soil for Game III, desperate to avoid a 3-0 series loss. Daley had the choice - stay faithful in the side that lost the first two games, or make changes, build for the future. Daley chose the former.
He debuted James Tedesco, who starred in the Blues victory in Game III that year. And in 2018? He’s favourite to take out the player of the series.
Loyalty. It’s a word that gets thrown around every year around the State of Origin period. People always assume the coaches are loyal to their players, but that’s not it.
Coaches aren’t loyal to their players, they’re loyal to what their players deliver. Wins. Victories. So why stay loyal to players that don’t deliver what you need?
Cherry-Evans has never delivered in the Origin arena. It’s harsh. But it’s a fact. The Blues' last series win was 2014, a year that saw Cherry-Evans play 70 minutes in Game I, and the entirety of Game II. Queensland lost both matches. He’s been labelled a choker, claims that he can’t handle the big game occasions. Ben Hunt has been thrown into the same basket after three matches for his state.
Ash Taylor doesn’t have the scars that both of them carry. He doesn’t carry the weight that critics have lugged on their shoulders.
That’s the difference between New South Wales and Queensland in 2018. Brad Fittler bit the bullet, took the leap, and handed the reigns to Nathan Cleary. A 20-year-old halfback. And now he’s a State of Origin winning one at that.
Think about it. Throw Ash Taylor in. In front of his home crowd, a packed out Suncorp Stadium. Give him that taste of Origin, just enough to see how he handles it. If he runs out there and leads his state to victory, then Queensland are in good stead for 2019, and have an array of options.
If Taylor runs out and Queensland are beaten, then at least Taylor has had that experience, he knows what playing Origin is about, and what it takes. And he can take the next few years at club level to build towards the level he needs to be at succeed in that arena.
It’s not rocket science. You take that risk, and if it doesn’t pay immediate dividends, then at least it might pay in the long term.
Cherry-Evans is a sideways step for Kevvie Walters, he and Hunt are different men, but are burdened with the same tags. There’s nothing to lose.
In a few years, people won’t remember whether the Blues won 2-1 or 3-0, its a minor detail when compared to who won the series. There’s nothing to lose.
Picking Cherry-Evans doesn’t pay any dividends. On a personal level, it hands Cherry-Evans the ability prove himself, redeem himself. But even with a good performance, it won’t fill Queenslanders with hope.
The doubts over DCE revolve around his ability to handle the pressure in big games, so what reprieve can he earn in a dead rubber, a match without the pressure of a decider, or an opener.
Kevvie, you’ve made the wrong choice here. Whether Cherry-Evans is the past or the present, Taylor is the future. In a negative situation bound with positive options, Walters has lost the rarest of opportunities, and made a blunder that could cost him in the near future.
Just because there’s nothing to lose, it doesn’t mean there’s no bad decisions to be made.