Andrew Johns says NSW should pick Jack Wighton as Blues five-eighth, resisting the urge to debut Jarome Luai.
NSW icon Johns agonised over the decision, made in his latest State of Origin picks for Wide World of Sports. He also named Nathan Cleary at halfback and Damien Cook at hooker; both incumbents. Wighton's selection means the axe for Cody Walker at No.6, after a shock series defeat to Queensland last year.
Johns' team so far is: 1. James Tedesco 2. Josh Addo-Carr 3. Latrell Mitchell 4. Zac Lomax (now injured) 5. Tom Trbojevic 6. Wighton 7. Cleary 8. Junior Paulo 9. Cook 10. Payne Haas 11. Angus Crichton 12. Cameron Murray (now injured) 13. Victor Radley.
With reigning Dally M Medallist Wighton battling for form, many have tipped Luai to carry his brilliant Penrith halves pairing with Nathan Cleary into the Origin arena. Johns instead opted for the bigger-bodied Wighton, who has previously played for NSW as a utility and left centre; where Johns this year wants a recall for Latrell Mitchell.
"I tossed and turned and thought about it. Obviously combinations are going to be really important but if Cooky's hooker (rather than Penrith's Apisai Koroisau)…" Johns said on Freddy and the Eighth.
"For me, Origin, you don't need too many ball-players. I think NSW especially have always been really good over the years when they've got big, strong, running five-eighths.
"So for me, it's Jack. On the left side, I think he plays very similar to [Cameron] Munster. When there's space, he just runs the ball. Left-side players, left-foot step.
"And with his running game, when he runs at the right time, he generates really quick play-the-balls. On the back of that, on the left side, that brings Latrell into play, it brings Nathan into play on the long side. It gets Cooky out of dummy-half, makes him a threat, playing around with him."
Yet NSW coach Brad Fittler baulked at Johns' selections. 'Freddy' has put huge stock in club combinations, the thinking behind Luai's current favouritism and potentially Isaah Yeo playing at lock.
"There's a big distribution of numbers there. You talk about combos; you've got three Roosters, three Souths, the rest are pretty scattered," Fittler said on Freddy and the Eighth.
Johns replied: "I just think at that level, you've got threat out of dummy-half, you've got a dominant halfback. Threat everywhere [with Tedesco at fullback]. Where [Trbojevic] comes into play, you bring him in and around the ball.
"You just need a running five-eighth. But it all changes if Cook's not there and Koroisau's there; obviously Luai. Cody, his [Rabbitohs] combination with Latrell on the left. But for me, I think defensively and also in attack, [Wighton] just gives you a really strong presence on that left side."
Johns suggested that Luai and Koroisau may still be in play for selection as a package deal. He said that if Cook was injured or replaced, he would also bring Luai into the team to have an all-Panthers six-seven-nine combination.
"I think he (Cook) is a by-product of the last couple of weeks, they've been struggling a bit, the Bunnies," Johns said.
"And I think the new rules have affected him more than anyone because markers, they come back. By the time he gets out of dummy-half, the markers have come back and they've just got a straight [defensive] line.
"My replacement would probably be Koroisau, and then if Koroisau plays [hooker], then Luai plays [five-eighth]. Combinations are just so important.
"Knowing how each other play, certain calls, especially in the heat of the game when everything hits the wall and you can't breathe. Sometimes you can't talk, you're that tired. If you get a quick play-the-ball and the dummy-half looks at you, you're just like, 'Let's go'."
Johns said that Cleary remained a no-brainer as halfback.
"He just keeps doing it. He hasn't had to put a nine out of 10 performance [in], he's just been hands and heels. Still, every week, eight out of 10," Johns said.
With Lomax and Murray out of the running, Johns pondered replacements at right centre and right edge back-row. He said that Blues veteran Tyson Frizell could take the back-row spot.
Trbojevic, Jack Bird, Stephen Crichton and Matt Burton are all possibilities for right centre. Whether he gets picked this year or not, Burton has made a massive fan of Fittler, thanks to his performances for Penrith playing out of position.
"Matt Burton, how good's he? He handles anything," Fittler said, possibly hinting at a squad role for the young Bulldogs-bound five-eighth.
"He did drop one on the weekend. I think that's the first time I've ever seen him have any negative in any game he's played at Penrith. I just can't remember him making any errors."
Johns added: "I have no doubt in the future Matt Burton will be playing Origin."
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