NSW manager Brad Fittler has defended his decision to make seven changes to his Blues squad following the narrow loss in the State of Origin series opener, insisting he cannot afford to play for Game 2 against Queensland, the made only two changes not to “re-evaluate” their winning team.
Ryan Matterson, Kotoni Staggs, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tariq Sims were all dropped from the Blues 17 who lost 16-10 to Queensland with Jack Wighton (Covid-19) the only forced substitution. Jacob Saifiti and Tyson Frizell are also absent from the extended squad for Origin II, which is played in Perth on June 26th.
But Fittler said the only option after a loss is to change tactics, especially when the three-game streak is at stake.
“When you get hit, you have to reevaluate,” he said. “We don’t have a safety net at the moment. We went into the first game thinking in a certain way about how the game was going to go and what we could do, but it didn’t happen.”
Fittler has yet to name his 17 but confirmed Matt Burton and Stephen Crichton would form a new-look center pairing. The duo have only one game of Origin experience together – Crichton came off the bench in a lukewarm performance in Sydney.
“Jack Wighton obviously can’t play and I was just thinking about Matt Burton and the way he played [for the Bulldogs]’ Fittler said. “Whatever Crichton is doing with Penrith, he’s a great defender.”
Jake Trbojevic will return to 17 for similar reasons. “The way the game went in Game 1 I think we needed someone who was really defensively minded,” Fittler said of his decision to pick the Manly centre-forward.
Fittler stated he dropped Sims with one eye on the years to come; Sims turns 33 in February and could decide to retire if his contract expires after 2023. “He has done a fantastic job for NSW. We really appreciate what he’s doing, but we’re looking to the future,” Fittler said.
Fittler has repeatedly emphasized the importance of versatility in the Blues’ lineup, saying the inclusion of Sharks enforcer Siosifa Talakai and Roosters forward Angus Crichton would help cover all bases.
“[Talakai] started the season in midfield, played on the fringes and also played in the center,” said Fittler. “He was unlucky not to make the first game. He’s someone we’ve been watching and we were very excited to watch him.
“[Angus Crichton] is playing really well at the moment. There are different ways he can play, in the middle or on the edge, but I’m really happy with his style.”
Penrith hooker Api Koroisau is expected to start off the bench but Fittler said his selection doesn’t mean the Blues have lost confidence in reigning number nine Damien Cook, who is among his best in a hot-cold South Sydney outfit was.
“That’ll be a tactical change if we go in with two hookers,” Fittler said. “In between [Cook] and [South Sydney teammate] Cam Murray, we have great faith in you. They’ve been part of this group for a while.”
For Queensland, recalled striker Jai Arrow has earned his redress shot, while Murray Taulagi will make his debut as the Maroons look to seal the series in Perth.
Arrow’s Origin future was tarnished after he was dropped from Camp Maroon last season for breaching Covid-19 protocols. The South Sydney workhorse was the 18th man for the Maroons’ win in Sydney but was included as one of two newcomers to Billy Slater’s side to play at Optus Stadium.
Powerful North Queensland winger Taulagi is the other change, with the 23-year-old replacing injured Melbourne flyer Xavier Coates. Arrow will replace Pat Carrigan on the bench, who is tasked with filling the void left by injured lock Reuben Cotter, whose Herculean 80-minute shot down the middle on the debut helped set up Queensland’s 16-10 win .
Brisbane winger Corey Oates and underrated Gold Coast backrower Beau Fermor were added to the extended squad, while Reece Walsh replaced Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (HIA) in Slater’s only injury-related changes, in stark contrast to his NSW opponent.