New South Wales coach Brad Fittler admitted he gambled prior to the Origin series opener in selecting Tevita Pangai Junior. He lost with that selection. He lost with other selection calls. He lost with the use of the interchange bench. And he lost the game.
The Blues have started favourites in every one of Fittler’s games since he took over in 2018, yet the coach is 8-8 over that time with two series losses. He has been strongly criticised for some questionable selections decisions – Josh Addo-Carr’s omission in 2022 was widely disparaged – and admitted prior to this year’s series opener that he was taking some unnecessary risks. Those risks did not pay off.
Fittler entered the series under immense pressure after dropping two of the last three – series the Blues were expected to win. He now must win this year’s final two games to be any hope of retaining his position.
The decision to select Pangai came out of nowhere. By full-time in Adelaide, he had 92 metres in his 29 minutes but an ill-advised offload put New South Wales on the back foot while he also conceded a penalty.
Payne Haas probably had the least impact he has had during his Origin career. A player with a huge engine who can play significant time for a prop, he played just 41 minutes. Haas had the quickest play-the-ball speed of any Blues forward yet the regular 65-minute player had his time limited. He played less time than Liam Martin and Cameron Murray.
Hudson Young started, yet the skilful edge forward and genuine game winner was taken off after 31 minutes and was not seen again.
But the most damaging move was also the most predictable – naming Nicho Hynes on the bench. The worry that Fittler would not know how to use the Dally M medal winner proved justified and in the end it cost the Blues a series-opening win. Hynes was not used as a backup rake or as a middle forward but was thrown on with no clear role with 12 minutes to play.
Playing a back on the bench at any level is fraught with danger. In tight contests, they are often not used. Getting them into a game without damaging the flow of a team is not an easy task. A skilful halfback used to playing the alpha role on the Sharks, there was no chance Hynes would be playing the same in Origin. He had no experience playing hooker and defending in the middle either. Fittler, seemingly, was unable to choose between either incumbent Jarome Luai or the better-performed Hynes and it proved devastating.
By the time Hynes came on for Tom Trbojevic, who was ruled out with a category one head injury, the Blues led by two against a 12-man Maroons team and had control of the game. Playing out of position though, Hynes was exposed by former Melbourne Storm teammate Cameron Munster, who skipped to his left, spotted up Hynes, fended him off and passed to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, who sped away for a magnificent try.
The Maroons, of course, deserve credit for doing Queensland things. They are at their best in the face of adversity. They take their opportunities. They also don’t, traditionally, shoot themselves in the foot.
Attention now turns to the second game and the thirst of Fittler and fellow selector Greg Alexander to make the tough calls. The Luai-Hynes tandem is no longer viable and given the Blues have won just one of the last four with Luai at the helm, serious consideration must be give to starting Hynes. Trbojevic was not moving anywhere near his best before his concussion and with the 11-day stand-down meaning he won’t play again before Origin II and with Latrell Mitchell returning, Trbojevic cannot be considered a certainty for Suncorp.
Even the position of James Tedesco must come into consideration after his worst Origin performance; the captain was poor defensively and continually held up the Blues attack. Tedesco has served his state so well for so long and will likely be given leeway but given the depth at fullback and the desperate nature of the 21 June clash at Suncorp Stadium, extreme options are on the table.
The Blues may well lose the series in Brisbane. But unlike Adelaide, they cannot afford to lose it at the selection table or in the coaching box.