We’re a week out from Origin selections, and the debate over who comes in and who keeps their spot continues to rage on with social media and news outlets fighting tooth and nail to have their say. But through all the chatter, there’s one term being constantly flung towards New South Wales that must be debunked – the ‘pick and stick’.
Queensland were famous for it during their eight-year dominance, picking the same players in the same positions regardless of how their club level form was. Sure, a few players got chopped and changed over the years, but when it came to the key players, they were picked every series as long as they were fit to play.
With a host of key Blues’ players under pressure, many fans have been quick to cry out ‘pick and stick’ and to stay loyal to the side that got the job done in State of Origin last year. So why should the Blues ignore the Maroons’ mantra?
It’s simple. The calibre of players.
Queensland’s side that saw them claim 11 Origin Series wins in 12 years was a once-in-a-generation team. Look through the names that took the field during that period, and you’ll see as clear as day.
Billy Slater. Greg Inglis. Darren Lockyer. Cooper Cronk. Jonathan Thurston. Cameron Smith.
Not only are they all near certainties to become Immortals in the future, they’re players that have proved themselves on the big stage time and time again. They are the men that have stood up in the dying seconds, when the game is in the balance. They’re the ones screaming to have the ball in their hand. They relish it.
New South Wales don’t have players like that in all their key positions. Namely the halves.
James Maloney and Nathan Cleary, as clear as it sounds, are not a Cronk. Not a Lockyer, not a Thurston. They are the men that were in sizzling form before the 2018 Series, and that’s why when injected into that arena, they won the series.
2019? A different story.
Penrith are 2-8 to start the year, and sit firmly in last place. And the halves pairing need to take responsibility for that. While the Panthers’ forward pack hasn’t been the dominant force it was at times last year, they have done enough of a job to get the side into the opposition’s 20 metre zone countless times.
In fact, Penrith have been tackled in that area of the field more times in 2019 than they had at this point of the season last year. That’s because Maloney and Cleary can’t convert position into points. They’re horribly out of form, and to put it as simply as Wayne Bennett did on Saturday, ‘there’s too many quality players in this competition that happen to wear New South Wales jerseys for those guys (from last year) to be picked’.
Those that should? Luke Keary and Adam Reynolds.
A combination that won the 2014 premiership with the Rabbitohs together, and while they play at separate clubs now, both are in close to career-best form. Cody Walker, as much as he is pushing for that five-eighth spot, will more than likely be chosen as a bench utility.
James Roberts is another. You can’t pick a bloke that isn’t even being picked for first-grade. Jack de Belin isn’t even allowed to play in the NRL, and while Tariq Sims has been playing decent football, the Blues need another prop on the bench.
New South Wales won last year because they picked players that were in good form. And luckily enough, the vast majority have maintained that form and carried it into this season. Some – like Damien Cook and Latrell Mitchell, may scarily even be playing better football than they were this time last year.
If it was Andrew Johns playing poorly in a Newcastle side that sat in last place, he’d still be picked. Because of the calibre of player he is. Maybe Cleary will be the calibre of a Cronk one day, who knows. But he sure isn’t right now.
Not to mention Maloney and Cleary’s form in Finals Footy wasn’t ‘eye catching’ by any means last year.
It’s time to throw the ‘pick and stick’ away, and play those that will perform right now. And that’s not the Penrith halves duo.