In what is shaping as one of the most contentious selection discussions in some time, talk is starting to build around who first-year New South Wales Blues coach Brad Fittler will select at halfback for his inaugural Origin campaign.
As the Blues lost yet another series last year, incumbent halfback Mitchell Pearce came in for his usual bout of criticism at the Origin level. Pearce is definitely in the mix to play under Fittler this campaign, but he’s not the only player in with a shot.
1 Mitchell Pearce (Newcastle Knights)
Mitchell Pearce is a hard guy to sum up. At club level, he’s done some special things. He’s a premiership-winning halfback, he was the face of the Roosters franchise for so long and won plenty of football games before moving north to link up with the Knights and be part of the rebuild up in the Hunter.
At Origin level, Pearce has had plenty of opportunities and though he’s rarely been the reason the Blues have lost, he has not been able to drag his side to victory against the almighty Maroons. The only series the Blues have won in recent memory came when Pearce was overlooked for a Josh Reynolds/Trent Hodkinson partnership in 2014.
This season Pearce has started well in his new surroundings at Newcastle. He’s definitely worked his name back into the mix as Fittler’s preferred option, but he has not locked himself into the role by any stretch of the imagination.
In his favour, Pearce is a strong competitor and has one of the better kicking games amongst the options at Brad Fittler’s disposal. On the other hand, how many chances do you give a guy to succeed at the highest level before you move on?
2 Luke Brooks (Wests Tigers)
If I’d told you Luke Brooks would be in contention for a New South Wales Blues jersey this time last season, you’d have laughed square in my face and, to be fair, you’d have every right to do so.
What a difference 12 months makes in football. Luke Brooks has been the driving force behind a Wests Tigers side that has stunned the league with a tremendous start to the 2018 season. Absolutely stunning in a 38-12 hammering of the Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval last Sunday, Brooks and the Tigers are doing everything in their power to prove they are the real deal and, at this point, it’s time to take notice.
Unfancied and written off before the season started, no halfback better represents the overall feel around a club than Luke Brooks does with the Tigers. Sometimes scrappy, sometimes sublime, full of heart and keen to get stuck into a hard fight, Brooks could feasibly be the perfect foil to a Luke Keary or James Maloney at five-eighth and not be overawed by the whole Origin experience.
3 Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers)
During the pre-season, Nathan Cleary was probably the favourite man to take over the number seven Blues jersey. Much hinged on how he paired with James Maloney and the early signs were good as was Cleary’s form overall before a horror injury consigned him to sitting on the sideline and watching as Maloney switched to halfback and went to another level.
That said, Cleary is reportedly ahead of schedule on his return and the thought of slotting him in as the long-term option at halfback could be appealing to Fittler and the selectors. Longer-term planning has not been a strong suit for the Blues and if they back Cleary to thrive under the pressure of being thrust into an Origin camp, the rewards could be astronomical.
On the flip side, the usual concerns around rushing a player back from a serious injury and the sort of issues around throwing a young guy straight into the toughest arena in the sport will definitely be considered as well.
There’s little doubt that the New South Wales halfback spot will be Nathan Cleary’s at some point in the future, but whether he gets his first crack in 2018 or not will be interesting.
4 James Maloney (Penrith Panthers)
Ok, so it wouldn’t be a conventional choice but with two good options to pick from at five-eighth, could Brad Fittler opt to shift James Maloney into halfback, the same spot he’s played so well in at Penrith since Nathan Cleary went down injured?
Maloney has a tremendous kicking game and backs himself to find holes running on the fringes and while his defence has always come with the caveat of missed tackles, he’s not alone there as a half and does rack up a few extra with his rush-in, physical style of defending, something which has come to the fore at Penrith.
For a little guy, Maloney has no issues mixing it with the big boppers in the middle of the ruck and has dished out a couple of decent hits on guys like Coen Hess, which is no mean feat!
5 Adam Reynolds (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
It's not all that long ago that some were suggesting Adam Reynolds could be the long-term halfback option for the Blues moving forward.
A combination of scratchy form, injury and playing for a side that has struggled to reach past glories seems to have stiffled Reynold's bid to be the Blues number one option at playmaker, but you'd have to think he remains at least an outside chance in the current landscape.
While there are definitely guys much better placed to come in and do a job in a new-look Blues outfit, Reynolds does still possess one of the better all-round kicking games in the league and the ability to control the tempo of games at club level with the Bunnies.
Reynolds is coming off an injury which would hamper his chances, though watching the difference between how good Souths are with and without him definitely works in his favour.
Who would you pick to play halfback for the New South Wales Blues in 2018? Let us know in the comments and poll below.
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