Secret pact behind ‘disrespectful’ NSW State of Origin pick
NATHAN Cleary will reportedly be saved from the State of Origin scrapheap by a secret pact between Blues coach Brad Fittler and former Penrith supremo Phil Gould.
Cleary's miserable form slump had his head on the chopping block ahead of Fittler's NSW team selection meeting with advisers Greg Alexander, Danny Buderus and Craig Fitzgibbon in Sydney on Wednesday.
But a pact not to pull the rug out from under Cleary has emerged as a critical reason Fittler will reportedly announce Cleary has retained his No. 7 jumper when the side is officially unveiled on Sunday night.
Cleary famously led NSW to a series win in his debut foray into the Origin arena in 2018 - but his form free-fall in 2019 has commentators and experts turning their backs on the 21-year-old.
With Cleary's Panthers appearing completely lost in attack this season and a series of contenders knocking down the door for a chance to replace him, sticking with Cleary for game one of the 2019 Origin series would be "almost disrespectful" to the Blues jumper, according to The Daily Telegraph's Phil Rothfield.
Rothfield told Macquarie Sports Radio on Wednesday that selectors had settled on selecting Cleary for the series-opener at Suncorp Stadium on June 5.
"I'm absolutely stunned by very strong mail that Freddy Fittler is going to stick with Nathan Cleary," Rothfield said.
"I think, if that's happening, it's almost disrespectful to the NSW jersey. There are so many halfbacks in superior form.
"It's not as if Nathan has been in a week long or a two-week-long form slump. He's been hopelessly out of form since the beginning of the year and he does not deserve to wear the NSW jersey, which should always go to the player who is in the best form in the state at the time the team's picked.
Fox League NRL 360 co-host Paul Kent said NSW risked "burning" Cleary by selecting him when he was out of form.
Former Blues coach and rugby league legend Laurie Daley said Cleary had looked "lost out there" in 2019, while speaking on Sky Sports Radio.
The Daily Telegraph's Dean Ritchie said Adam Reynolds, Chad Townsend and Mitchell Pearce would all be better options than Cleary - but confirmed the Panthers playmaker would get the nod because of Fittler's agreement with Gould 12 months ago that NSW was prepared to pick and stick with Cleary as the state's long-term halfback.
"I was a little surprised personally," Ritchie told Sky Sports Radio's Big Sports Breakfast.
"His form is down. His body language isn't looking good and he's with a Penrith side that really is struggling. But last year there was an unwritten agreement that if you pick him now you've got to stick with him."
Gould told Nine earlier this month, having previously spoken of a "guarantee" from Fittler to stick with Cleary, that Fittler should pick Cleary and Roosters star Luke Keary for Origin I.
It is simply unconscionable that a so-called handshake agreement could box Fittler into a corner on something as significant as the No.7 jumper.
Reynolds' case is particularly impossible to ignore.
His kicking game and game management is the best in the state. The Rabbitohs are 9-1, on top of the ladder, for many reasons - and Reynolds' boot is right at the top of the list.
Playing alongside Keary, Reynolds doesn't need to come up with the X-factor plays - he only needs to turn the screws on the Maroons as only he can.
The Cleary dilemma is far from the only headache for both teams.
If the teams were picked based on the form of players this season, Queensland would be looking at six changes, and NSW would be looking at seven.
Here are all the tough calls that have to be made:
- Blake Ferguson has been the form winger in the competition in 2019 and Fittler simply has to swallow his pride to bring the Eels speedster back in from the cold to get the nod ahead of Raiders star Nick Cotric
- The Blues' right centre crisis is as alarming as selection issues go - and in times of desperation NSW needs to go with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn't. That means picking the reliable Josh Morris ahead of rising star Jesse Ramien
- Broncos wrecking ball Payne Haas has picked himself with his incredible forward charges this season
- Cameron Murray and Dale Finucane have simply been more impressive than incumbents Tariq Sims and Angus Crichton in the battle for the bench spots this season
- Tyrone Peachey has struggled to make an impact on the Gold Coast this year, but his unique skills set makes him a far more suitable utility on the bench for the Blues than the alluring option of looking to a star such as Cody Walker
- Queensland's greatest issue is needing to convince Cameron Smith how vital it is that the Storm captain returns for a historic final Origin campaign. It would be the stuff of legend - and the thing NSW wants the least
- The selection of Michael Morgan in the centres would mean Queensland is well protected should injury strike and allow them to go with a bench of four forwards. This costs Ben Hunt his spot in the 17 - if Smith pulls the trigger.
- Josh McGuire's calf is a major concern for the Maroons, but he has earned the benefit of the doubt to get a starting position nod with his performances in recent series.
TYSON OTTO'S ORIGIN TEAMS FOR 2019, GAME 1
1. James Tedesco
2. Blake Ferguson
3. Latrell Mitchell
4. Josh Morris
5. Josh Addo-Carr
6. Luke Keary
7. Adam Reynolds
8. David Klemmer
9. Damien Cook
10. Paul Vaughan
11. Boyd Cordner
12. Tyson Frizell
13. Jake Trbojevic
Interchange: 14 Payne Haas, 15, Cameron Murray, 16 Dale Finucane, 17 Tyrone Peachey
IN: Blake Ferguson, Josh Morris, Luke Keary, Adam Reynolds, Payne Haas, Cameron Murray, Dale Finucane
OUT: Tom Trbojevic, James Roberts, James Maloney, Nathan Cleary, Jack de Belin, Tariq Sims, Angus Crichton
1. Kalyn Ponga
2. Corey Oates
3. Michael Morgan
4. Will Chambers
5. Dane Gagai
6. Cameron Munster
7. Daly Cherry-Evans
8. Josh Papalii
9. Cameron Smith
10. Josh McGuire
11. Matt Gillett
12. Felise Kaufusi
13. Jai Arrow
Interchange: 14 Dylan Napa, 15 Coen Hess, 16 Jarrod Wallace, 17 David Fifita
IN: Kalyn Ponga, Michael Morgan, Cameron Smith, Matt Gillett, David Fifita, Dylan Napa
OUT: Billy Slater, Valentine Homes, Gavin Cooper, Ben Hunt, Tim Gladsby, Andrew McCullough, Ben Hunt