State of Origin selections thrown into chaos by injuries to Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic and back-up options

State of Origin selections thrown into chaos by injuries to Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic and back-up options
  • PublishedMay 15, 2024

One thing Michael Maguire assured when he took over the role as New South Wales head coach was that past Origin performances would count for little when selecting the 2024 team. 

Not being hamstrung by the past is one of the great benefits of starting a new regime, but Maguire has instead been hamstrung by hamstrings. And calves. And knees. And ankles.

All told, it’s been a horrid start to 2024 for State of Origin hopefuls and incumbents, making the teams for Game I on June 5 something of a mystery.

Billy Slater has a couple of headaches coming up before naming his team in two weeks’ time, but that’s nothing compared to the Blues’ backline woes, with Nathan Cleary and Tom Trbojevic the latest superstars struck down.

Fullback

NSW incumbent: James Tedesco

QLD incumbent: AJ Brimson

A composite image of Brisbane Broncos' Reece Walsh (left) grabbing his jersey and James Tedesco in a NSW Blues jersey.
James Tedesco (right) has reasserted himself as one of the game’s best as Reece Walsh has struggled to start 2024.(Getty Images)

So much of the discussion to start the season seemed to be leaning towards nudging fullback and captain James Tedesco out of the NSW team in favour of Penrith custodian Dylan Edwards.

And while Edwards has done nothing but prove his brilliance through the first 10 rounds, Tedesco has risen along with his Roosters this year and all but ensured he will be safe.

On the Queensland side, it’s looking a little spicy.

AJ Brimson is the incumbent after Reece Walsh missed the 2023 dead rubber through suspension.

Walsh was brilliant in his first two rep games last year and as the sparkplug that fired the Broncos to the grand final, but his start to 2024 has as many rocks as it has diamonds and there was a case to be made for dropping the electric 21-year-old based solely on his form for the Broncos.

He sits fourth in the league in terms of the most handling errors, according to NRL.com, and his decision making has been poor at times, even if he has mixed in his usual moments of brilliance as well.

But the conversation is basically moot because any chance of him being left out disappeared when Brimson hobbled off with a groin injury during the Titans’ win over North Queensland on the weekend.

Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga was already gone with a foot injury, so Slater will pick no doubt pick Walsh and try to get him back on the right side of the rocks vs diamonds equation.

Wing

NSW incumbents: Brian To’o, Josh Addo-Carr

QLD incumbents: Xavier Coates, Murray Taulagi

Composite image of Brian To'o (left) celebrating a try for Penrith Panthers and Xavier Coates in a Queensland Maroons jersey.
Brian To’o (left) and Xavier Coates would have been two of the earliest names put on either team’s list, but Coates has a hamstring complaint.(Getty Images)

Before the season, Brian To’o was one of the easiest selections in any prospective Origin teams and nothing has changed there, but the remaining three spots have more intrigue around them.

Josh Addo-Carr has been injured for good chunks to start the season and down on his devastating best for the Bulldogs, and his jersey may be the easiest way to get Dylan Edwards into the side.

The Panthers’ perpetual motion machine leads the league in all run metres and his gains from kick returns (992 metres) are almost double the next best player in the league (Tom Trbojevic’s 555 metres).

Edwards played on the wing for Australia three times last year and is certainly capable, plus a kick-return triumvirate of Tedesco, Edwards and To’o may be just about unstoppable.

One NRL player looking at an opponent, who is walking off the field (backturned) after being sin-binned
Dylan Edwards leads the Dally M race, but may have to play out of position if he wants to make his Origin debut.(Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

Things are all at once more simple and more complicated for Queensland, with Xavier Coates starting the season in career-best form for the Storm and Murray Taulagi the other incumbent, but both are battling hamstring complaints.

They’re set to return this weekend, but soft-tissue injuries aren’t cut and dry when it comes to return timetables and Slater will want to see elite performances from both if they are to keep their spots.

Selwyn Cobbo played the first game of the 2023 series and is a good chance to be picked ahead of Taulagi, even though he’s been at centre for Brisbane to start 2024.

Centre

NSW incumbents: Stephen Crichton, Bradman Best

QLD incumbents: Valentine Holmes, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow

Composite image of Bradman Best bleeding from his brow for the Newcastle Knights and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow of the Dolphins.
Bradman Best (left) could keep his jersey from his debut in Game III last year, while Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow needs to prove his fitness.(Getty Images)

Starting with the Maroons because it’s really very simple; Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is in the same boat as Taulagi and Coates, needing to prove his fitness after a hamstring injury. Valentine Holmes will be picked even if the Cowboys are playing woefully at the moment because he’s the new Dane Gagai, lifting every time he pulls on a maroon jersey.

Basically, Holmes and Cobbo are the only players currently fit who played wing or centre for the Maroons last year. Depending on who out of Coates, Tabuai-Fidow and Taulagi proves their fitness best in the next two weeks, they’ll take the other two spots, with Taulagi likely to be the odd man out if everyone is available.

The Blues should be picking their incumbent pair of Stephen Crichton and Bradman Best, now that Tom Trbojevic has been ruled out with yet another hamstring injury.

Tom Trbojevic limps off the field and holds his head
Injuries have restricted Tom Trbojevic to just five Origin games in the past four series.(AAP Image: Dave Hunt)

Best’s two-try debut in Game III last year, paired with some timely performances for the Knights this year, proved he has the power to give Queensland’s more rangy outside backs hell.

Meanwhile, Crichton is a proven big-game performer, a goal-kicking option and can cover wing and fullback to an elite level in the case of injury.

Canterbury’s Matt Burton, Brisbane’s Kotoni Staggs, and South Sydney’s Latrell Mitchell and Jack Wighton (who has retired from rep footy) were also used at centre by ousted coach Brad Fittler in the past three series, and Maguire reportedly contacted Sharks veteran Jesse Ramien earlier in the season.

That was likely a courtesy call he made to a lot of prospective talent, but it will no doubt put a rocket up the other contenders to make sure they’re not resting on their laurels.

Halves

NSW incumbents: Cody Walker, Mitchell Moses

QLD incumbents: Cameron Munster, Daly Cherry-Evans

Composite image of Cronulla Sharks halfback Nicho Hynes (left) and Melbourne Storm's Cameron Munster.
Could former Storm teammates Nicho Hynes (left) and Cameron Munster face off in Origin I?(Getty Images)

Hoo boy. The Maroons will pick their world-class in-form incumbents. End of.

Now, what the hell are the Blues going to do?

Nathan Cleary and Mitchell Moses are injured and Cody Walker is horribly down on form on the worst team in the league, leaving Jarome Luai as the only NSW half from 2023 still fit and firing.

Even veteran Adam Reynolds and potential in-form bolter Jamal Fogarty have been cut down by torn biceps, leaving NSW with relatively few options on the ground.

2022 Dally M Medal winner Nicho Hynes, who played 10 minutes off the bench in his Game I debut before being ignored for the rest of the series, seemed set to slot straight in as he’s led the Sharks to the top of the table this year.

Nathan Cleary looking upset as he walks to the Panthers team bus.
Nathan Cleary’s torn hamstring has thrown a spanner into the works for NSW.(AAP: Mark Evans)

But a calf injury forced him out of Cronulla’s round-10 win over Melbourne, and while it may be more precautionary than anything else as he’s back to face the Roosters on Saturday, it’s another soft-tissue injury with the potential for aggravation and unpredictable healing times.

Moses’s foot injury has kept him sidelined since March and after being left off Parramatta’s team list for its Magic Round clash with Melbourne, he will only have one game (against South Sydney in round 12) at best to prove his fitness to Maguire before the teams are named.

If he can’t get up for Origin I, the Blues could do worse than pairing Hynes with three-time premiership-winning five-eighth Luai, while Canterbury’s Matt Burton and the Roosters’ Luke Keary have both done the job for the Blues in the past.

What can we expect up front?

Origin games are typically won in the forwards and you’d expect 2024 to be no different, with the interchange bench becoming increasingly important in recent years.

But the injury list isn’t quite as devastating for either side, as even major absences are often able to be covered by committee in the forward pack without completely up-ending the rhythm of the team.

A Cronulla NRL player passes the ball to his right against Wests Tigers.
Cameron McInnes’s ability to play hooker and lock has put him in line for an Origin debut.(Getty Images: Matt King)

NSW incumbents Cameron Murray and Jacob Saifiti are out and in-form Manly firebrand Nathan Brown is also unavailable, but the potential replacements, including a few debutants, are exciting for Blues fans.

Cameron McInnes is most people’s pick to slot into the team, with the Cronulla workhorse in career-best form for the table-toppers.

With Isaah Yeo one of the first names on the team sheet at 13, expect McInnes to be named on the bench, with the added bonus of being able to sub in at hooker.

And speaking of, the Blues used three different dummy halves in 2023 — Api KoroisauReece Robson and Damien Cook — with Koroisau the only one of the three in something close to peak form at the moment.

It would be a surprise to see Payne HaasJake TrbojevicLiam Martin or Yeo miss out in the front six, with Sea Eagles devastator Haumole Olakau’atu doing his utmost to push for a debut in the back row and Stefano UtoikamanuHudson Young and Daniel Saifiti playing well enough to take a spot.

For the Maroons, the loss of 2023 reps Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Tom Gilbert, Tom Flegler and Corey Horsburgh (as well as potential reinforcements Coen Hess and Kurt Capewell) gives them more questions to answer.

The vaunted Harry Grant/Ben Hunt combo completes the spine by sharing the hooking role, with Brisbane’s Pat Carrigan, Roosters star Lindsay Collins, and Cowboys Reuben Cotter and Jeremiah Nanai easy selections for Slater.

Expect to see Moeaki Fotuaika retain his spot, with Titans teammate David Fifita also in the frame after playing all three games last year.

Former Origin rep Felise Kaufusi will also be in the frame, while Josh Kerr has been in camp before and Kobe Hetherington is in fine form for the Broncos, but the options for Queensland up front are a complete reversal of their fortunes in the backline.

Slater will need to find those workhorse forwards that embody the ‘Queensland Spirit’ once more, and the good news for him is they never seem to be in short supply.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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