Gallen axes two stars in new-look Blues side

NRL great PAUL GALLEN will appear on Nine’s 100% FOOTY every Monday night of the NRL season, debating rugby league’s hottest topics alongside Phil Gould and James Bracey. Tune in tonight at 10:40pm (AEST) following a bumper round 11!

We’re less than a week away from finding out who will pull on the New South Wales jersey for game one of the State of Origin series, so I’ve put the thinking cap on and come up with the squad I would pick for the opening game at ANZ Stadium.

1. James Tedesco 2. Brian To’o 3. Kotoni Staggs 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Damien Cook 10. Payne Haas 11. Liam Martin 12. Angus Crichton 13. Isaah Yeo Bench: 14. Nicho Hynes 15. Junior Paulo 16. Jake Trbojevic 17. Cameron Murray.

There’s three debutants, in Kotoni Staggs, Stephen Crichton and Nicho Hynes, which is about the limit that you’d want. Especially for the first game of the series, because it’s so important. We know that if you win game one so often you win the series.

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It’s an all-new pairing in the centres, forced on coach Brad Fittler by the injuries to the incumbent pairing of Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell.

Staggs deserves his spot, and I’ve got him playing on the right side, he’s an out-and-out right centre, I don’t think you’d play him on the left.

I’ve got Stephen Crichton on the left, I know he normally plays on the right for Penrith at the moment, but I think back to his first year in the competition and he was playing on the left. I thought that was his best year to be honest, and while Staggs is solely a right centre, that showed me that Crichton can play on both sides.

Freddy is known as a fan of using club combinations where it makes sense, and there’s also the combination between Crichton with Brian To’o on the left, and also Crichton’s partnership with Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary in the halves.

Having that combination with guys you play with every week, it’s not the be-all and end-all, I believe you pick the best players and they’ll get the job done, that’s why they’re the best players.

But for a guy who would be making his debut, given the situation the Blues find themselves in with injury, you look for any advantage you can get. It might only be a one per cent type thing, but at State of Origin level you take any edge you can possibly find.

Ryan Papenhuyzen’s injury means Nicho Hynes gets the number 14 spot, just in front of Jack Wighton. Wighton’s found some good form in the last few weeks, and the battle between Hynes and Wighton might be a coin-toss, especially if Canberra wins again this week against Parramatta.

However, I’ve gone for Hynes because he has been one of the buys of the season, with his performance against the Warriors a couple of weeks ago a real stand-out. There’s the added benefit that he can cover any number of positions.

In fact, he can play pretty much any position in the backline, and he’s big enough that at a pinch he could play lock as well.

It’s a big decision for selectors to make, because Wighton’s been there before, but I’m happy for Hynes to take the spot.

One bit of good news for Freddy is that Cameron Murray seems like he’ll be back from injury much earlier than expected, and as long as he comes through unscathed this weekend he’s straight back into the 17.

Two blokes who came close but ultimately missed out are Daniel Saifiti and Tyson Frizell, and really they’re just victims of Newcastle’s very ordinary form so far this season.

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Individually they haven’t excelled, had they been stand outs for the Knights it might have been a different story, but you just can’t pick them based on what we’ve seen over the first 11 rounds.

They’re almost a victim of circumstances, they’re not necessarily playing badly, but when your team is going poorly and you’re not a stand-out, it’s hard to make a case to pick them. If you look through the rest of the squad, they’re either from teams that are going well, or in the case of someone like Josh Addo-Carr, they’re stand outs in a side that’s struggling.

Keaon Koloamatangi from Souths was another I considered for the bench, but ultimately there’s only so many spots available. But he’s close and could come into calculations later in the series, especially if there’s any injuries.

I don’t know what game plan Freddy had in mind, but obviously the loss of Trbojevic, Mitchell and Papenhuyzen means a bit of a re-think.

It will mean a change to the structure of the team, but look, we’re talking about elite players here, they should be able to handle that.

If you’re going to lose players of that calibre, it’s probably easier to lose them now, rather than a week out from the opening match. Freddy’s had plenty of time to get his head around the fact they won’t be there.

He’ll have had different combinations in his mind now for a couple of weeks, it’s going to be a different-looking team this year, simply because of those injuries, but that’s part-and-parcel of rugby league.

You’ve got to deal with it and put it behind you, which I’m sure they will.

This will be a fascinating series, with some youngsters possibly coming into the Queensland side, like Selwyn Cobbo and Reece Walsh.

New South Wales has won three of the last four series, but the momentum doesn’t carry over much from one series to another, to be honest. Each year is very different, this year more so with the injuries to New South Wales and the potential debut of a few future stars for Queensland.

State of Origin throws up something special every year…2022 will be no different.

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