While game three may be a dead rubber, there is plenty for NSW to gain and lose as it looks to salvage something, anything, from a series that opened with so much promise and instead has amounted to nothing.
But before the Blues even consider any team changes, they must answer one simple question first — is Brad Fittler NSW coach next year?
Fittler’s contract with the Blues expires at the end of 2023 and so he could approach game three as a chance to experiment and show his adaptability as a coach.
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It may be a bit too late for that though and given Fittler’s strong sense of loyalty to this current playing group, it is unlikely he would make too many changes.
With that in mind, are the Blues better served parting ways with Fittler immediately and in turn approaching game three with a fresh set of eyes?
Of course, Origin selections are often dictated by form and it isn’t always as simple as planning for the future with the expectation of running it back with the same 17 next year.
If this series taught NSW anything though, it was that there is a difference between picking a champion team and a team of champions.
Former Blues player Luke Lewis said as much on ABC’s Grandstand Rugby League on Wednesday.
“You could tell that in that group they weren’t for each other… I hate looking at it and saying it, but I could see it right from the start that it was all about being individual and not being a group,” Lewis said.
“We pick players based on names and what they’ve done in the past, and now it’s starting to drive me nuts. I’m burning right now.”
So, with that in mind, what could the NSW team for game three look like and how could Fittler’s role influence what changes ?
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FULLBACK: James Tedesco (UNDER THREAT)
Again, you can never fault Tedesco’s workrate but he is at the heart of the broader question facing Blues selectors ahead of Origin III — is it time to start planning for 2024?
If the answer is yes, NSW may as well see what it has in Dylan Edwards or potentially even Latrell Mitchell if the Rabbitohs star is fit to return from a calf injury.
For Tedesco to be a threat again at Origin level, the Blues need to find a way to play off momentum generated through the ruck and middle of the field.
You see it with the Roosters, where Tedesco’s support play through the middle and tackle-busting ability makes him one of the best fullbacks in the game.
When NSW gets inside prime field position though, Tedesco’s lack of consistent ball-playing slows down the Blues’ attack and makes them predictable to defend as they spread it wide.
Tedesco’s struggles may also be a result of playing in a Roosters team that has had its own problems in attack, with the 30-year-old currently on track to record the fewest try assists and linebreak assists in his career since joining the club.
Funnily enough, this used to be the same criticism with Edwards and while the Panthers fullback is far from the finished product he has definitely improved his passing game.
Of course, if NSW is looking for better ball-playing out the back it does not have to look any further than Mitchell, with Parramatta’s Clint Gutherson another left-field option.
Mitchell is more of a forward-thinking choice given it would allow the Blues to get a look at how the attack would fare with the South Sydney star at the back without the series at stake.
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WINGERS: Brian To’o (SAFE) and Josh Addo-Carr (SAFE)
It is the same story as game one, with not much to go off given neither To’o or Addo-Carr were given much good ball to work with.
The pair were victims of a disjointed Blues attack that saw passes go to ground and a lack of early ball that allowed Addo-Carr in particular to threaten with his blistering speed.
Neither deserves to lose their spot and instead there needs to be a concerted effort from the NSW coaching staff to put both in a better position to succeed.
CENTRES: Stephen Crichton (SAFE) and Tom Trbojevic (UNAVAILABLE)
Crichton once again would have dropped out had it not been for Trbojevic’s injury, with the Manly fullback set for a lengthy stint on the sideline with a pectoral issue.
That means the logical move sees Mitchell come back into the side, should he overcome a niggling calf injury with Crichton retaining the other spot in the centres.
Realistically, that is the most likely scenario for game three with the only alternative seeing Mitchell moved to fullback which would bring teammate Campbell Graham into the equation.
The versatile Matt Burton and Brisbane’s Kotoni Staggs are other contenders that would come into the mix but Fittler and the Blues have been guilty of overthinking things this series.
Graham would be the straight-forward choice and deserves his Origin debut given his combination of strength and athleticism along with proven decision-making in defence.
HALVES: Jarome Luai (UNDER THREAT) and Mitchell Moses (UNDER THREAT)
Who lines up in the halves will largely depend on whether Nathan Cleary is fit to return from a hamstring injury, although does Penrith even want him risking it?
Obviously Cleary will have the final say, but with the series already wrapped up and the potential of re-injury, would the Blues be better off looking elsewhere anyway?
Realistically, NSW already knows what it has with Cleary and may be better off giving Luai and Moses another opportunity to prove themselves in game three.
Moses in particular deserves a second chance after a solid showing at Suncorp Stadium, backing his instincts and playing with confidence but often just not having any teammates in support to build on half-breaks.
Queensland’s edge defence also deserves plenty of credit for rushing in and shutting down numerous potential opportunities for NSW, particularly in the first half.
Although the Maroons also did that in the series opener, raising questions as to whether the Blues’ attacking gameplan is adequately set up to adapt to what the defence throws at them.
As for Luai, he had his moments and finished with a linebreak and five tackle busts but his ball-playing and ability to create opportunities that way remains a question mark.
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In that sense, Cody Walker could come into calculations given the South Sydney five-eighth was reportedly ahead of Nicho Hynes if the Blues overlooked Luai for game one.
Partnering Walker with former Rabbitohs teammate Adam Reynolds may not make much sense though if the Blues are using game three to look towards the future.
So if Walker does get the nod it would likely come alongside Moses, offering the Blues an extra kicking option and obviously one of the most creative playmakers in the game.
Walker currently leads the NRL in try assists (19) and total try involvements (35) while sitting second to Hynes in linebreak assists (23).
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FRONT ROWERS: Junior Paulo (UNDER THREAT), Payne Haas (SAFE)
Payne Haas was easily the Blues’ best in an otherwise tough night, with the Broncos prop running 165 metres to go with four tackle busts and 33 tackles.
The numbers sometimes don’t tell the full story but in the case of Haas, it accurately spoke to just how heavily involved he was even when playing off the backfoot.
As for Paulo, he was solid in a 66-metre effort but it seems part of the problem for Fittler and the Blues is they are attempting to squeeze in so many forwards who play big minutes at club land.
Paulo, for instance, averages 56 minutes at Parramatta but was given just 31 in game two.
Of course, you can say the same thing for some of the Queensland players, with Moeaki Fotuaika only getting 30 minutes despite averaging similar game time to Paulo for the Titans.
But you could also see the value of having someone like Lindsay Collins who really turned the game in Queensland’s favour with a high-impact, 41-minute stint off the bench.
Collins exploded for 127 metres and while he may not play as big minutes, NSW could turn to someone like Spencer Leniu in game three to provide similar punch in short spurts.
HOOKER: Reece Robson (SAFE)
The 25-year-old will be given another crack after a tireless performance in his Origin debut, making 46 tackles for just one miss while running seven times for 52 metres.
It became clear late in the game though that Robson was fatiguing and that was on the NSW coaching staff for playing Cook at centre instead of prioritising its rotation at hooker.
It meant that the Blues lacked spark and speed through the middle of the ruck, which in turn saw NSW struggle to replicate the precision that Queensland had in order to create overlaps out wide.
Robson stays put for game three with Apisai Koroisau still sidelined but the Blues need to have better back-up options than Cook if another outside back goes down.
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BACK-ROW: Tyson Frizell (UNDER THREAT), Hudson Young (SAFE), Isaah Yeo (UNDER THREAT)
The Blues have something to build on with Young, who looked threatening on the edge in game two as he broke a team-high six tackles and ran for 75 metres.
The 25-year-old may push the boundaries at times but he also has the competitive fire needed at the Origin level, so you’d have to say his spot in the team is relatively secure.
As for Frizell, again it is a question of whether the Blues want to use game three as an opportunity to see what they have long-term in guys like Keaon Koloamatangi or Haumole Olakau’atu.
Frizell was better in the series opener but struggled to have any real impact running the ball at Suncorp, managing just 38 metres — although in his defence he only had the four carries.
If the Blues are looking for a bit more firepower and second-phase play on the edge to spark their attack, younger options like Koloamatangi and Olakau’atu should come into the frame.
As for Yeo, he is still one of the best lock forwards in the game but you could make the argument that his playing style doesn’t necessarily suit what NSW needs right now.
While Yeo works as a ball-playing option at club land, the Blues are better placed getting the ball to their strike players sooner.
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That means getting quick play-the-balls and speed through the ruck — something Cameron Murray is better at generating while still offering a short-passing threat close to the line.
Yeo could still start with Murray coming off the bench but the Rabbitohs forward definitely needs to be on the field before halftime, ideally after 25 minutes or so when fatigue starts to set in.
Greg Alexander said on NRL 360 that the initial plan was to bring Murray and Cook on after 30 minutes but that the Trbojevic injury threw that into disarray.
Yeo is then versatile enough to be brought on anywhere in the forwards and still has a high workrate, having run for 129 metres and made 46 tackles without a single miss on Wednesday.
BENCH: Damien Cook (SAFE), Stefano Utoikamanu (UNDER THREAT), Cameron Murray (SAFE), Liam Martin (SAFE)
Cook and Murray have already been covered enough, with both safe for game three but bigger questions surrounding how exactly they are used.
The same goes for Utoikamanu, who was given just 13 minutes in game two. It would be incredibly unfair to dump the 23-year-old based on that performance alone.
The only way to justify that call would be if Fittler decided he was better off having an out-and-out utility option on the bench, with 18th man Matt Burton the frontrunner there.
Moving on to Martin, he had a few poor missed tackles but his hard-running style is made for Origin while his ability to play in the front row and on the edge makes him a valuable asset.