The NSW Blues have been named for the first game of the 2017 #Origin series.
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Despite everyone north of the border holding their collective breaths since Johnathan Thurston limped of 1300Smiles Stadium on Saturday night, we thought it best to wait and here the results of his scans before speculating who might replace him. So this week, we focus on the edges and which centre/back-rowers come into contention.
Long gone are the days when second-rowers were simply part of the forward pack and their main focus was to just tackle and help take the ball forward. Whilst both are still a key component of their job descriptions, the ability to run good lines in attack has become paramount in the modern game and for some, being able to ball-play on the edges is an added bonus.
Outside the edge back-rowers are the centres, the strike weapons and speedsters capable of breaking a game wide open with their freakish talents and that's where we'll focus on first.
For Queensland, the season ending knee injury to one of their stars Greg Inglis is a gigantic whole to fill and to make matters worse, their other incumbent centre Justin O'Neill is also on the injured list with no clear time frame on when he may return.
New South Wales have an injury concern of their own with Josh Dugan currently out of action with a hamstring strain. Listed to return between rounds 8-10 he could be left with as little as two games to prove his fitness to Coach Laurie Daley.
The Blues other incumbent centre is the enigma that is Michael Jennings. Other than a couple of flashes of brilliance against the Dragons back in Round 2 the Eels flyer has barely fired a shot this season and that's about what you get with him these days. In Game 2 two years ago he produced a man of the match performance showcasing his scintillating running game. In the 4 Origin games since he's been relatively quiet, up until he came up with the match winning try in the 80th minute of Game 3 last year of course. So the question is, does Coach Daley continue to pick him in the hope he has one of his ‘ON' nights or does he turn to a more consistent week to week performer?
DANE GAGAI - After debuting in game 3 of the 2015 season, the Knights flyer had seemingly found himself a home on the Maroons right flank for years to come after playing all three games there last year. With injuries rocking the Maroons centres this year, Gagai appears an obvious choice to shift one in and assume his club position of right centre. Reports are he's feeling stronger than ever this year and his 26 tackle busts for the year back that sentiment up. Has always put in for the Maroon jumper and turned in a stormer on the weekend with a try, 2 line-breaks and 7 tackle busts.
JACK BIRD - Picked as the Blues bench utility for games 2 and 3 last year, the young Sharks tyro made an immediate impact at the top level when he entered the furnace of Suncorp Stadium with about 15 minutes to go bobbing up everywhere in attack. Was again strong in game 3 when asked to come on for the injured Josh Dugan. Went on to claim his first Premiership with the Sharks later in the year and was enormous in the Grand Final playing through the pain of ruptured ligaments in his elbow for most of the contest. Has been strong again this year with an average 114 running metres, 21 tackle busts and 3 try-assists. While it's still unclear where his best position lies, what has become clear is the Blues need him on the park for 80 minutes so picking him at centre where he currently plays at club level makes the most sense. Plays the game as tough as anyone at his age past and present. Born for Origin.
WILL CHAMBERS - Missing last year's series through injury, Chambers appears the other logical choice to fill the void for the Maroons. Has looked comfortable in all 4 of his Origin games prior and his 3 try-assists, 6 line-break assists and average 118 running metres this year indicate he's in good form and ready to again step into the Origin arena. His club combinations with the likes of Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and most likely Billy Slater is an undoubted bonus.
With Coach Daley slowly changing the direction of this Blues side over the last couple of years, it's interesting to see where a player of JOSH MORRIS' calibre fits into the fold. After receiving a late call-up for the opener last year, the defensive genius was then ruled out of game 2 through injury before being overlooked for game 3 to fit Dugan back into the team. Has done a tremendous job particularly in defence for the Blues over the years, but plenty are calling for a more attacking approach this year which could see others considered before him.
Did anyone ever think the name DYLAN WALKER would be tossed up in Origin circles again? After the left-field selection of him as a bench utility for game 1 last year in which he received only nine minutes proved a flop, he then went on to play game 2 in the centres where he failed to make any impact and was subsequently dropped for game 3. A full off-season in his natural position of right centre has done wonders for his confidence and with 3 tries, an average 111 metres and 27 tackle busts he's been one of the in-form centres this season. Has plenty of competition and still loads of ground to make up from last year, but if he continues on this upwards progression could come right into the mix.
TYRONE PEACHEY - Suffering a rib injury in Round 5 it's a bit unclear on his return date, but if he can get back on the park in the coming weeks and pick up in the kind of form he was showcasing prior to his injury, he looms as the wildcard in the Blues backline. Many good judges have him earmarked as the Blues utility player such is his ability to cover any number of positions, but why not throw him in at left centre where he's been a revelation since finding a home there last year. Has been absolutely braining them in the opening rounds of the season with 3 tries, 6 line-breaks, 145 metres per game and 28 tackle busts. Right up there with the best dummy half runners in the game which would make him an asset coming out of his own end, an integral part of Origin football. Like the Blues incumbent left centre Jennings, Peachey has the ability to turn a game on its head, but is doing it far more regularly.
Now with 16 Origins to his name, MATT GILLETT is just about the first man picked in the Maroons pack. As tough as they come, the right edge back-rower has been strong again this year with 13 tackle busts, 37 tackles per game and again leads the competition for one on one tackles with 28 for the year.
SAM THAIDAY with his 28 games of Origin experience and the invaluable attribute of knowing when his team needs a lift with one of his strong charges will no doubt be in the 17 somewhere. Whether that's on the Maroon's left edge where he played last year's series or in the middle, perhaps off the bench depends on how Coach Kevin Walters sees the overall balance and make up of his team.
The other edge back-rower from game 3 last year was GAVIN COOPER who made his long awaited debut off the bench. Transferred his consistent club form to the big stage seamlessly in that game and was rewarded with a try for his efforts. There will be plenty vying for a spot on the Maroons bench, but he'll be in the thick of the conversation.
Making his Origin debut in game 3 last year after missing his chance in game 2 due to a controversial suspension was WADE GRAHAM. Took him a while to get into that contest, but looked more at home as the game wore on with his toughness and line-speed in defence playing a big part in the Blues win on the night. Went on to taste Grand Final glory later that year and has started this season full of confidence and in superb niche. Scored a hat-trick in the Sharks big win over the Raiders on Round 2 and overall has 2 try-assists, 6 line-breaks and 17 tackle busts to his name for the year. His all-round skill-set and toughness make him the complete package as far as edge back-rowers go and looks a certainty either starting on the left edge or off the bench, depending on where Coach Daley chooses to use Boyd Cordner.
A deserving winner of the Brad Fittler Medal for Blues best player last year, JOSH JACKSON appears locked in to patrol the right edge again this year. Was superb defensively throughout last year's series doing a tremendous job in rushing up on Johnathan Thurston and limiting the champion half's opportunities. Again challenging Gillett for the mantle of the games top one on one tackler with 27 for the year and has been handy with the ball with 3 try-assists in a much criticized Bulldogs attack.
We spoke about them in more depth last week, but JOSH PAPALII and BOYD CORDNER are both certainties to come back into their respective state's 17 man squad. Both are left edge specialists in club land hence the mention again this week, but both can play just as well through the middle. Cordner is a likely starter in the run-on team either way, but the more you see Papalii play this year and have a major influence on games, the more likely it is he earns his first run-on game for the Maroons.
COEN HESS - With 11 tries to his name in just 15 NRL games, this hulking North Queensland back-rower has rocketed into contention. In his six games this season, Hess has crossed the stripe on just as many occasions and has had to earn every one of them. A near unstoppable force close to the line, the towering unit will inevitably carry defenders over the line when he has a full head of steam up. Also with 5 line-breaks and 27 tackle busts for the year, Hess appears destined for the Origin arena and despite his young age firms more and more each week. Some players were just born ready.