This article was first written for and published for The Roar.
Tonight, Brad Fittler will finally announce his New South Wales Blues squad to take on the Queensland Maroons for State of Origin Game I on Wednesday 6 June at the MCG.
The build-up to this series has been one of my favourites in recent years – potentially because I do see a glimmer of hope for the Blues.
But let’s start with the Maroons. Following Cameron Smith’s recent announcement about his retirement from all forms of representative football, the narrative about the Maroons in the media has very much been about a changing of the guard.
And it’s true. The Maroons will certainly look very different this series without some of their most prominent champions of recent years like Smith, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston unavailable for selection. The idea of playing Queensland without these players (as well as some other players ruled out due to injury) has some New South Wales fans salivating.
When the Queensland squad is announced at 10am this morning, not only will there be some new faces, but also a new captain, widely believed to be Greg Inglis.
Then there are the Blues.
I’m still not quite over the heartbreak of last year’s series which I knew was over once Queensland won Game 2. But if there are changes at the Maroons, it’s nothing compared to the changes we will see at the Blues, least of which is the new coach.
Fittler has hinted that this year Blues fans will see a changing of the guard, with the number of debutants apparently in double figures. What better opportunity to start fresh than with a new coach at the helm.
So who will make the squad?
According to NRL.com, here’s what has been hinted at so far:
• Nathan Cleary is set to make his State of Origin debut alongside his Penrith Panthers halves partner, James Maloney.
• Other Panthers likely to make the squad include Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tyrone Peachey.
• South Sydney Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook is predicted to make his debut for the Blues in the number 9 jersey, edging out Cameron McInnes.
• Josh Addo-Carr is on his way to Sydney from Melbourne to join the squad after a sensational rise for the Melbourne Storm over the last year and a half.
• James Roberts is also on his way to Sydney from Brisbane to make his debut, despite an injury scare he sustained from the Brisbane Broncos win against the Parramatta Eels last Thursday night.
• Nick Cotric from the Canberra Raiders is another potential debutant after his dazzling attacking performance against the Manly Sea Eagles on Saturday.
• Apparently Tom and Jake Trbojevic, James Tedesco, David Klemmer and Latrell Mitchell are also in the squad.
With the gossip on the internet, it is looking like the New South Wales Blues squad will line up as follows: James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, James Roberts, Latrell Mitchell, Josh Addo-Carr, James Maloney, Nathan Cleary, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Damien Cook, Paul Vaughan, Tyson Frizell, Boyd Cordner (c), Jake Trbojevic. Interchange: Tyrone Peachey, David Klemmer, Jack de Belin, Angus Crichton. Reserves: Nick Cotric, Tariq Sims, Ryan James.
And with the official announcement still several hours away, expect speculation to continue to mount throughout the day.
Players I am thrilled to finally see get their Origin opportunity include James, Roberts, Cleary, Campbell-Gillard, Cook, Vaughan and De Belin. I’m also pleased to see both Nick Cotric and Angus Crichton in the mix. I had no doubt both these players would play Origin, but I just didn’t think it would be this early.
Going off the above squad though, there are a couple of notable omissions.
Some of these are unsurprising include Brett Morris (who announced his representative retirement after State of Origin last year) and Josh Dugan (who has struggled with injury and hasn’t been playing his best football for Cronulla, partly because of the number of positions he has played for the Sharks this year).
Then there are Jarryd Hayne and Mitchell Pearce – both unavailable due to injury – and Andrew Fifita, who has pledged his allegiance to play for Tonga and has been tipped not to make the cut despite being indecisive about whether he wanted to represent the Blues or not.
There are a couple of players though who are looking like they will miss out on selection and could potentially be classed as unlucky to lose their spot.
Despite being in career-best form, Blake Ferguson looks like he will miss out on his spot. Fittler has spoken about the importance of team culture, so his visit to the pub last year with Dugan certainly would not have helped.
Unfortunately for Ferguson, his position on the wing is a hotly contested one this year with plenty of fresh talent coming through like Addo-Carr and Cotric. Tedesco’s likely selection also does Ferguson no favours, particularly because this means that Tom Trbojevic is also likely to be fighting for a wing spot.
Aaron Woods’ form has come under constant scrutiny this year – some fair and some unfair. I’ll never forget Woods’ efforts in Games 1 and 2 last year – particularly some of his big runs at the start of the game. If Woods misses out on selection, it will be the first time since 2013 that he has not made the squad.
His numbers have been solid this year – he makes 13.4 runs per game, an average of 140 metres, tackles at 93.4 per cent efficiency and has made 21 offloads. However, Woods is prone to making errors at crucial points in the game and his hit-up technique means he rarely bends the line, instead choosing to put his back into the defence.
The final forgotten Blue is Josh Jackson. Plenty of words can be used to describe Jackson – dependable, leader, professional. Unfortunately though his position as a right-edge second rower is under threat from the likes of Boyd Cordner, Wade Graham and Tyson Frizell. Can the stalwart of the Blues squad snare that final forward spot?
No doubt we will get more hints throughout the day about the squad and by tonight, we will know who’s in and who’s out.