Gun Eel stews over ruthless NSW Origin axing

Some NRL stars are bouncing off the walls after earning a call-up for the NSW Blues squad for the State of Origin opener.

But, as is the case every year, some are burning, ruing falling short of coach Brad Fittler’s NSW squad.

Below are Wide World of Sports’ winners and losers from last night’s Blues squad announcement.

WINNERS

Purring Panthers

Ivan Cleary’s men dominated the reveal of Fittler’s squad of 19, with six Panthers earning a spot amid Penrith’s scintillating start to the season.

The unbeaten Panthers have become just the third team in Australian first-grade rugby league to have started a season with 12 wins, joining the South Sydney team of 1925 and Manly side of 1995. Penrith’s plus-306 points differential is also the biggest in premiership history after 12 rounds.

That phenomenal run of form has not only helped Nathan Cleary retain the NSW halfback position and Isaah Yeo shift from the bench to lock, but led to four Panthers debutants.

Jarome Luai has snared the five-eighth position, Brian To’o has jagged a spot on a wing, back-rower Liam Martin will start on the bench and hooker Api Koroisau is the Blues’ 18th man.

Luai conquered the hottest selection battle of the lot, replacing axed South Sydney five-eighth Cody Walker as he beat Canberra weapon Jack Wighton to the No.6 jumper.

The 24-year-old is leading the competition in try assists with 14 and has developed beautiful chemistry with Cleary since James Maloney exited the Panthers after the 2019 season.

Comeback king Latrell

Dynamite Rabbitohs fullback Latrell Mitchell missed four weeks due to a suspension and had just one game upon return, South Sydney’s clash with Parramatta, to bolster his Origin selection chances.

But so dangerous had the four-Test Kangaroo been during his pre-suspension stretch that even a quiet game against the Eels couldn’t deter Fittler.

Mitchell’s selection means he’s set to make an Origin comeback after copping the cut after the opening game of the 2019 series.

There have been whispers of a divide between Fittler and Mitchell ever since his Origin sacking, but the former Rooster has locked down a spot in the centres along Sea Eagles maestro Tom Trbojevic.

So hot was Mitchell’s form early in the season that he began his suspension in Round Seven sitting atop the Dally M leaderboard, having knocked Storm flyer Ryan Papenhuyzen off the top perch.

Dragons hard nut Sims

One giant winner of Fittler’s Blues reveal is St George Illawarra back-rower Tariq Sims, who’s been named alongside South Sydney workhorse Cameron Murray in the second row.

Sims was likely trailing Victor Radley, Angus Crichton and Tyson Frizell in the race for a spot in the 17, but he’d pull off a Steven Bradbury.

Roosters lock Radley copped a five-week suspension, Rabbitohs back-rower Crichton was slapped with a two-game ban and Knights destroyer Tyson Frizell dashed his chances in the final game of Round 12, injuring an ankle and being placed on report.

The 31-year-old’s surprise rise to the NSW team means he’s set to feature on the Origin stage for the first time since the second match of the 2019 series.

Sims was cut from the same cloth as former Blues Mark Carroll and Mark O’Meley. He was born with a fierce edge built for Origin football.

LOSERS

Axed Rabbitoh Walker

It’s not known if the chief factor in Walker losing the Blues’ No.6 jersey was Luai’s sparkling form and telepathic combination with Cleary, or his patchy run in red and green.

But regardless of why Fittler dropped Walker, the Origin career of the four-match Blue has continued on a rocky path.

Walker started at five-eighth in the opening game of the 2019 series but was benched in the 56th minute.

The 31-year-old was then overlooked for the remainder of the 2019 series but fought back to feature in all three matches of the Blues’ 2020 campaign. Luke Keary played at five-eighth in the series-opener as Walker started on the bench, before the indigenous star won back the No.6 jumper for the two remaining games.

Walker was brilliant in South Sydney’s 38-20 victory over Parramatta in Round 12, playing a hand in two tries as the Rabbitohs’ lethal left edge made a mockery of the Eels.

But it wasn’t enough to sway Fittler.

King Gutho

Parramatta captain Clint Gutherson was among five Blues cut from the team that fell 20-14 in last year’s decider, alongside Walker, Roosters winger Daniel Tupou, Eels brute Nathan Brown and Storm co-captain Dale Finucane.

Gutherson has been an inspiration in blue and gold this season, proving an almighty threat in attack and defence. The former Sea Eagle is sitting third in the league in run metres, behind only To’o and Warriors ace Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and is leading the competition in kick-return metres. He’s also made a string of tremendous try-saving tackles.

But the Parramatta fullback was no chance of unseating Dally M medallist James Tedesco for NSW’s No.1 jumper, while last year’s Origin experiment in the centres was heavily maligned.

Gutherson’s best chance of retaining a spot in the Blues 17 was grabbing the bench utility role, but that was snapped up by Wighton.

Cruelled Knight Frizell

Frizell has perhaps never played in a more heartbreaking win.

The 14-game Blue was outstanding as the Knights staged an incredibly gritty victory this evening, racking up 144 metres and 25 tackles in his club’s 18-10 win over a red-hot Manly.

But he was reported for a high shot on Manly prop Marty Taupau in the 50th minute, before again cruelling his Origin selection chances when he left the field with an ankle injury in the 77th minute.

Rugby league Immortal Andrew Johns and former NSW skipper Paul Gallen both had Frizell starting in the second row in the series-opener, before his fateful afternoon made that impossible.

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