Rugby league Immortal Andrew Johns has settled on his final NSW State of Origin team for the series opener, while Blues coach Brad Fittler has declared that Panthers youngster Matt Burton is a serious selection option.
Johns named boom Manly playmaker Josh Schuster as his 18th man, though Fittler said that Burton may get the honour; which could now result in game time in the case of multiple concussions during the match.
Fittler also hinted at giving Burton a proper Origin debut as the bench utility, at age 21. Should Burton get the nod, after playing just his 16th NRL match this weekend, he would become one of the least-experienced players ever picked for NSW. Payne Haas had played just 10 games, while Fittler himself had played 12.
Angus Crichton and Victor Radley have come out of Johns’ starting back-row due to suspension, replaced by Tyson Frizell and Jake Trbojevic (previously bench and 18th man) respectively. Jack Bird has replaced the injured Ryan Papenhuyzen as the utility, while Isaah Yeo gets a bench spot. Tom Trbojevic has replaced the injured Zac Lomax at right centre, bringing Brian To’o on to the wing as the only debutant in the 17.
Johns’ team: 1. James Tedesco 2. Josh Addo-Carr 3. Latrell Mitchell 4. Tom Trbojevic 5. Brian To’o* 6. Jack Wighton 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Junior Paulo 9. Damien Cook 10. Payne Haas 11. Cameron Murray 12. Tyson Frizell 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Jack Bird 15. Daniel Saifiti 16. Isaah Yeo 17. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 18. Josh Schuster*. (*Debut)
Dragons centre Bird, 26, would be playing his first Origin football in four years.
“I think he’s been in great form, Jack [Bird], coming back from those knee injuries,” Johns said on Wide World of Sports’ Freddy and the Eighth.
“And you can play Jack anywhere. You can play him anywhere in the backs, you can play him in the back-row.”
That’s also the appeal of Burton, who is starring for Penrith at left centre despite being a specialist five-eighth. The strapping young gun scored a hat-trick against South Sydney on Sunday in his home town, Dubbo.
Fittler sees in Burton a natural footballer, with an uncanny knack for getting the bounce of the ball while also offering a polish beyond his years. He has talked-up Burton all season and appears on the brink of picking him for NSW.
“He’s in the right place at the right time, all the time. He’s a really good player, his defence looks sound,” Fittler said on Freddy and the Eighth.
“The one thing they [Penrith] do really well is work off the ball for each other and that’s one thing you’ve got to do in Origin, you’ve got to work pretty hard.”
Asked if Burton had been genuinely discussed for a debut, Fittler said: “Absolutely.
“That 14 position, you’ve just sort of got to see what positions you can cover. I’ve just liked him because I remember he came in last year and every time he came in he was pretty much the best player on the field.
“Then they went with [Jarome] Luai [as Penrith five-eighth] and everyone questioned that; but every time he (Burton) came in, he was the best player. Now he’s got the [centre] position and he’s like one of the best players every week. He just looks like he’s unflappable.”
Johns stuck with Jack Wighton as his NSW five-eighth, despite Luai arguably being in better form and sharing a club combination with incumbent halfback Nathan Cleary, in an unbeaten Penrith team. Fittler is reportedly leaning the same way, given Wighton’s excellent past efforts for the Blues.
Wighton would have been a No.14 option if overlooked at No.6, which perhaps further bolsters Burton’s chances. Johns hasn’t entirely ruled out Luai but is backing Wighton to demand selection in his final NRL outing before the side is picked.
“It depends how Jack goes this weekend. I just get the feeling that up there Saturday night against the Roosters he’s going to have a big game,” Johns said, with Canberra facing the Tricolours in Gosford.
Johns plumped for Schuster, who has played only 11 NRL games, as his young bolter in the No.18 jersey. Having played at left-edge back-row earlier this season, he has had a chance to shine at five-eighth with Kieran Foran out injured for Manly.
“I knew he was a talented player [but] what I saw on the weekend [in a win over Parramatta], this bloke is really special,” Johns said, adding that Schuster was best suited at No.6.
“Which would suit Origin because he’s a big body. I think it would be good for him to be around the camp because playing Origin’s all about handling the camp and that sort of stuff.”
Johns moved Tom Trbojevic from the wing to the centres, where he starred in the 2019 series in a roving attacking role, in the hope of greater involvement. ‘Turbo’ is arguably the game’s best player on current form.
“I thought about Turbo and he’s wasted on the wing,” Johns said.
“Because in Origin on the wing, a lot of it is just playing like a front-row, just going hit-ups on play two after their kick downfield.
Johns stuck with Damien Cook as his hooker, despite the incumbent No.9 being under serious pressure from Penrith’s Apisai Koroisau. He also mentioned Brisbane forward Tevita Pangai Jr as a potential option to debut in the NSW pack.
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