Teams have dropped for the highly-anticipated State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium on July 13 and there’s plenty to talk about.
A pair of Queensland veterans have survived the axe while yet another Cowboys youngster has bolted into the Maroons 17.
New South Wales have stuck solid with their winning formula which means their best player in the series opener has missed out.
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The highest-paid forward in the NRL failed to earn a Queensland recall and a star of the future has forced his way into their squad.
North Queensland have a huge contingent across the squads, with the Blues set to blood a debutant a month before his 31st birthday.
Here are the winners and losers of the team selections for the decider.
COWBOYS AND JORDAN MCLEAN
The Cowboys have been rewarded for the sensational season with a whopping eight players selected across both squads.
The bolter this time is veteran prop Jordan McLean who is one of those rare players to have represented Australia, eight times in 2017-18, but never played Origin – until now.
NSW coach Brad Fittler has named the 30-year-old to start at prop for the injured Payne Haas, making him the fifth-oldest Blues debutant in history.
He’ll be one of five North Queensland players in the decider when he squares up against club teammates Valentine Holmes, Murray Taulagi, Jeremiah Nanai and Tom Gilbert.
McLean will debut just one more before his 31st birthday and Fittler said it had been 10 years in the making.
“A long time ago I remember talking to players in a room and he was one of those young 21 or 22-year-olds that was about to make his (Blues) debut but he never quite got there,” Fittler said.
“So watching what he’s done this year, he’s been outstanding and I was close to picking him in the team earlier, he came into the squad Game II but what he’s been doing for the Cowboys, he’s a bit of an unsung story.”
North Queensland hooker Reece Robson has been named on the Blues’ extended bench, while Tom Dearden and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow are among the Maroons’ reserves.
“Todd Payten has done a fantastic job up there and they’re in a really good place,” Queensland coach Billy Slater said.
“They’re playing some great football, I thought the standard of that Cowboys vs Broncos game was really high, it was a fast game and that’s a reflection on both of those teams.
“We’ve got a lot of Cowboys and a few Broncos in this Queensland team, they deserve to be here because they’ve earned that through their club form and they’re a big reason as to why their clubs are doing so well.
“I’ve played a lot of football with Jordan McClean, I know what he brings and he’s playing some really good footy this year.
“I don’t think they (New South Wales) lose too much there.”
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JOSH PAPALII AND DANE GAGAI
There were no guarantees that some of the Maroons’ most experienced players would have their Origin careers extended into Game III.
Raiders prop Papalii played limited minutes in the opening two games as Knights centre Gagai missed a whopping 18 tackles.
Papalii has played 22 games for Queensland since 2013 while Gagai has 21 starts having played almost every Origin since debuting in 2015.
Slater has stayed loyal to the duo but if NSW win at a decider at Suncorp for the first time since 2005 – their Queensland careers will likely be over.
“There’s no doubt that individuals in our team can be better, they can do their job better,” Slater said.
“We’ve got our wingers and we’ve got our centres.
“There’s no doubt that individuals in our team can do better and they need to do their job better, but we’ve got our centres.
“You don’t have to look too far to see what Dane Gagai brings to the Queensland team,” Slater commented. I know what he brings.
“We know what Papa brings to our team. He’s a real leader, he starts the game off really well for us so internally we understand what strengths our players have got and we try to play to them.”
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DOLPHINS AND TOM GILBERT
Wayne Bennett’s Dolphins have copped plenty of stick for failing to sign a host of big names ahead of their inaugural season next year.
The Dolphins announced the signing of North Queensland young gun second-rower Tom Gilbert to little fanfare back in April.
But the 21-year-old has played every game for the high-flying Cowboys this season and has now forced his way into his first Queensland side.
Gilbert comes onto the bench for club teammate Jeremiah Nanai who has moved into the starting side for veteran Felise Kaufusi (personal leave).
“Unfortunately for Felise his father’s not doing overly well and he’s overseas so Felise is over there with him, which is his priority and we certainly support Felise in that decision,” Slater said.
“The decision was made by Felise on Saturday and he’s put his family and the team in a certain regard first.
“There’s a fair bit to like about Tom, he’s been playing really well actually.
“He’s been on the radar for a while and he’s that sort of player you want in your team, works really hard in defence, keeps his feet moving.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of reports that he’s really fit and he’s got good leg speed as well.”
It means Bennett will start his Dolphins campaign with at least four Origin-experienced players on his books in Kaufusi, Gilbert, Jarrod Wallace and Edrick Lee.
The Roosters playmaker was famously let go by the Broncos as a teenager and the Ipswich export will now get his first taste of a Maroons camp.
Walker burst onto the scene last season, making his NRL debut in Round 4 and helping a Roosters side decimated by injuries make the finals.
The 20-year-old has impressed at times this season despite the Tricolours’ struggles, and is widely tipped to be a 10-year Origin player.
“Sam’s really earned the opportunity to be in the 22,” Slater said.
“He’s obviously in the extended side and we think it’s going to be a good opportunity for Sam to come in and experience the week of State of Origin.
“He’s a Queensland boy playing some great football so I think he’s really developed his game over the last six months.
“We just think Sam deserves the opportunity to come in, Reece Walsh is obviously unavailable through Covid and Sam’s the next one up that deserves the opportunity to be here.”
SHARKS AND SIOSIFA TALAKAI
Nicho Hynes was the Blues 18th man in Game II but that spot now belongs to Jack Wighton which means the Sharks get their No. 7 back for a crunch clash.
Cronulla host Melbourne in a blockbuster top-four clash on Thursday night, but they’ll be without Siosifa Talakai who edged out Jack Wighton for a spot on the Blues bench.
The Storm proved too strong when the sides met in Round 7, running out 34-18 victors, but this time they’ll be without Queensland duo Cameron Munster and Harry Grant.
NSW’s best player in the series opener is desperately unlucky to miss out on playing in the decider as Fittler opted against changing his winning formula.
Raiders star Wighton was ruled out of Game II after contracting Covid and missed the Blues thumping victory in Perth.
In a case of terrible timing, the Canberra playmaker had his worst game of the NRL season against the Dragons on Sunday night.
Wighton – who won the 2020 Dally M Medal – knocked on the kick-off to start the second half and failed to put a penalty into touch with five minutes left as they lost 12-10.
Wighton had just 11 metres from three runs, made four errors and conceded two penalties while also missing three of his 30 tackles.
Wighton was in a race with Matt Burton and Latrell Mitchell to play left centre.
But Mitchell played his first game in three months on Saturday and after the game pulled himself out of NSW contention.
Fittler praised it as the right decision to avoid a week of headlines around whether he’ll come into the 17.
“At the end of the day I think that’s the smartest thing to happen, I think there would have been a couple of days of torture for everyone answering questions about Latrell,” Fittler said.
“When I thought about it, it was the best way to do it and I thought he played really well (on the weekend).
“He was really good and positive about the team, the two (centres) in particular. You’ve got two really good young centres there, it’s a really tough position to play and we’ve been a little bit vulnerable there so we’ve got some work to do.
“(Mitchell) proved that if you put your head down, what was he out for 12 weeks, I thought he looked really crisp and he’ll only get better.
“I think it’s worked out well for everyone, really smart thing to do.”
MOEAKI FOTUAIKA AND COREY OATES
Titans prop Moeaki Fotuaika looks to be another victim of his side’s poor form.
Cowboys young gun Tom Gilbert has earned the nod ahead of Fotuaika with the Gold Coast anchored to the bottom of the ladder.
Broncos flyer Oates has played eight games for Queensland and was picked in the Game II squad but couldn’t crack it for the decider.
Despite winger Xavier Coates still being injured, there’s no room for Oates with Cowboys star Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow picked in the reserves instead.
Eels star Reagan Campbell-Gillard started Game I and was unlucky to be dropped for Game II after impressing in club land.
RCG put in another solid display against the Rabbitohs on Saturday night, running for 131 metres in a heavy loss.
Knights enforcer David Klemmer has been playing well in a struggling side this season but cannot get a look in for Blues recall.
Another Newcastle star in Daniel Saifiti returned from injury against Souths but didn’t show enough to be called into the squad alongside his twin brother Jacob.
RCG was one of seven changes Fittler made to his squad for Game II which ignited a thumping win in Perth.
“I spoke to all those players that missed out in Game II and I was disappointed for them more than anything because they didn’t get to play in a team that played close to their potential but sometimes you become that victim,” Fittler said.
“Parramatta are a funny team at the moment but I don’t think it’s been because of (RCG), just what Jordan offers at the moment, his club form is mostly a little bit stronger.”
Titans backrower David Fifita impressed on his return from injury after five weeks on the sideline against the Knights on Friday night.
The problem was the rest of his team were hopeless as Newcastle thumped the last-placed side 38-12.
Fifita came off the bench and finished with 108 metres from 14 carries, three tackle busts, two offloads, a linebreak and a linebreak assist in 55 minutes.
The Queenslander, who has played for his state five times, was the only forward to run for more than 85 metres but his form has been inconsistent this season.
The Broncos star almost won man-of-the-match off the bench in the series opener but Slater didn’t move him into the starting side for Game II.
Queensland were spanked as Carrigan struggled to have the same impact as the Blues pack dominated through the middle.
There were some suggestions the big loss could see Carrigan promoted to the starting side for the decider, but he remains on the bench.
Slater has stuck strong to his game plan and will be hoping Carrigan can burst the game open when he comes on around the 15-minute in front of a sold-out home crowd.
GAME III TEAMS:
NEW SOUTH WALES BLUES
1. James Tedesco (c) (Sydney Roosters)
2. Brian To’o (Penrith Panthers)
3. Matt Burton (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
4. Stephen Crichton (Penrith Panthers)
5. Daniel Tupou (Sydney Roosters)
6. Jarome Luai (Penrith Panthers)
7. Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers)
8. Jordan McLean (North Queensland Cowboys)
9. Apisai Koroisau (Penrith Panthers)
10. Jake Trbojevic (Manly Warringah Sea Eagles)
11. Cameron Murray (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
12. Liam Martin (Penrith Panthers)
13. Isaah Yeo (Penrith Panthers)
14. Damien Cook (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
15. Angus Crichton (Sydney Roosters)
16. Junior Paulo (Parramatta Eels)
17. Siosifa Talakai (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks)
18. Jack Wighton (Canberra Raiders)
19. Nicho Hynes (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks)
20. Clint Gutherson (Parramatta Eels)
21. Jacob Saifiti (Newcastle Knights)
22. Reece Robson (North Queensland Cowboys)
1. Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights)
2. Selwyn Cobbo (Brisbane Broncos)
3. Valentine Holmes (North Queensland Cowboys)
4. Dane Gagai (Newcastle Knights)
5. Murray Taulagi (North Queensland Cowboys)
6. Cameron Munster (Melbourne Storm)
7. Daly Cherry-Evans (Manly Sea Eagles)
8. Lindsay Collins (Sydney Roosters)
9. Ben Hunt (St George Illawarra Dragons)
10. Josh Papalii (Canberra Raiders)
11. Kurt Capewell (Brisbane Broncos)
12. Jeremiah Nanai (North Queensland Cowboys)
13. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (Gold Coast Titans)
14. Harry Grant (Melbourne Storm)
15. Jai Arrow (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
16. Patrick Carrigan (Brisbane Broncos)
17. Tom Gilbert (North Queensland Cowboys)
18. Thomas Flegler (Brisbane Broncos)
19. Tom Dearden (North Queensland Cowboys)
20. Beau Fermor (Gold Coast Titans)
21. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (North Queensland Cowboys)
22. Sam Walker (Sydney Roosters)
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