NSW coach Brad Fittler has defended his decision to make seven changes to his Blues squad after the narrow loss in the State of Origin series opener, insisting he could not afford not to “reassess” for Game 2 against Queensland, who have made just two changes to their winning team.
Ryan Matterson, Kotoni Staggs, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, and Tariq Sims have all been dropped from the Blues’ 17 that lost 16-10 to Queensland, with Jack Wighton (Covid-19) the only forced change. Jacob Saifiti and Tyson Frizell are also out of the extended squad for Origin II, to be played in Perth on 26 June.
But Fittler said the only option after a defeat was to change tactics, especially when the three-match series was on the line.
“When you get beaten, you need to reassess,” he said. “We have no safety net at the moment. We went into the first game thinking a certain way about how the game would go and what we could do, but it didn’t happen.”
Fittler has yet to name his 17 but confirmed Matt Burton and Stephen Crichton would form a new-look center pairing. The duo has only one game of Origin experience – Crichton came off the bench in a lukewarm Sydney show.
“Jack Wighton obviously can’t play, and I just thought of Matt Burton, with the way he’s playing [for the Bulldogs],” Fittler said. “What Crichton does with Penrith, he’s a great defender.”
Jake Trbojevic will return to the 17 for similar reasons. “Just the way the game went in Game 1, I think we needed someone defensively-minded,” Fittler said of his decision to select the Manly middle forward.
Fittler explained he had dropped Sims with one eye on the years ahead; Sims will be 33 in February and could choose to retire when his contract expires after 2023. “He’s done a fantastic job for NSW. We appreciate what he’s been doing, but we’re looking towards the future,” Fittler said.
Fittler has repeatedly stressed the importance of versatility to the Blues’ set-up and said including Sharks enforcer Siosifa Talakai and Roosters forward Angus Crichton would help cover all bases.
“[Talakai] started the season in the middle, played on an edge, and has played center,” Fittler said. “He was unlucky not to make the first game. He’s someone we’ve been watching and are very excited about watching.
“[Angus Crichton] is playing powerfully at the moment. He can play differently n the middle or on edge, but I’m really happy with how he’s going.”
Penrith hooker Api Koroisau looks set to start from the bench, but Fittler said his selection did not mean the Blues had lost faith in incumbent number nine Damien Cook, who has been below his best in a hot-and-cold South Sydney outfit.
“That’ll be a tactical change, going in with two hookers,” Fittler said. “Between [Cook] and [South Sydney teammate] Cam Murray, we’ve got a lot of confidence in them. They’ve been part of this group for a while now.”
For Queensland, recalled forward Jai Arrow has earned his redemption shot, while Murray Taulagi will debut as the Maroons aim to seal the series in Perth.
Arrow’s Origin future was clouded after he was axed from camp Maroon last season for breaching Covid-19 protocols. The South Sydney workhorse was the 18th man for the Maroons’ victory in Sydney but has been included as one of two additions to Billy Slater’s side to play at Optus Stadium.
Powerful North Queensland winger Taulagi is the other change, the 23-year-old in for injured Melbourne flyer Xavier Coates. Arrow will replace Pat Carrigan on the bench, who fills the void left by damaged lock Reuben Cotter, whose herculean 80-minute effort in the middle on debut helped set up Queensland’s 16-10 upset win.
Brisbane winger Corey Oates and underrated Gold Coast backrower Beau Fermor have been added to the extended squad. In contrast, Reece Walsh replaced Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (HIA) in Slater’s only changes forced by injuries in stark contrast to his NSW opposite.