Cronulla Sharks wrecking ball Siosifa Talakai has expressed his surprise after retaining his spot in Brad Fittler’s NSW Blues side for the State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium next Wednesday.
Talakai played just 17 minutes off the bench in Game 2 with the result already decided, but he has kept his spot in the Blues team ahead of Canberra’s Jack Wighton.
Wighton was one of the Blues’ best in the series opener before missing Game 2 in Perth due to COVID-19 protocols.
“I wasn’t expecting (to be picked),” 25-year-old Talakai told AAP.
“Jack is a great player. He killed it and was our best for Game 1. I thought he deserved to be on the bench.
“I was happy to be in the reserves, the extended squad or even be dropped."
The Sharks enforcer’s shock comes after Blues legend Andrew Johns suggested Wighton would be returned to the bench at Talakai’s expense prior to the squads being named.
“I think he’ll come in (for) Talakai,” Johns told the Sunday Footy Show on Nine.
“Jack was NSW’s best player in Game One by a mile, but unfortunately for him (Matt) Burton has gone in that position. But Jack will be in the 17 somewhere.”
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart also claimed Wighton should be recalled following the Raiders’ disappointing loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons last weekend.
Though Wighton came away from the trip to WIN Stadium with a try assist, he also struggled in the challenging conditions, finishing with six errors – including the pivotal mistake that handed the Red V what proved to be a match-winning lead.
But there’s more than recent form motivating Fittler’s decision, following today’s withdrawal of Jordan McLean from the NSW squad with a hamstring injury.
Picking Wighton over Talakai would leave the Blues with one specialist front-rower on the bench in Junior Paulo and the side is already dealing with McLean’s sudden departure as well as the gaping void left by the absence of Payne Haas.
Though Jacob Saifiti is likely to fill the front-row void, Talakai’s strength and ability to move into the second-row gives Fittler more opportunity to manage his forward rotation throughout the game.
Wighton still has a place in the squad at 18th man, and given developments that have affected the availability of McLean and Nicho Hynes in just the past 48 hours, there’s still every chance his role could change before game day.