‘Loyal to the jersey’: Fittler undecided on six spots

NSW’s dwindling right-edge stocks have terrorised a sleepless Brad Fittler, who insists up to six State of Origin spots still remain up for grabs before the series opener in Brisbane next month.

Facing a Blues selection he concedes has been a far greater challenge than leading into game one last year when he blooded 11 Origin rookies, Fittler has given the strongest hint yet he will discard incumbents struggling for form by claiming he will be “loyal to the jersey”.

Close calls: Brad Fittler says Nathan Cleary and james Maloney have two weeks to sort their form out.Credit:omnisport

Already missing winger Tom Trbojevic (injured), halfback Nathan Cleary and centre James Roberts have been out of form and out of favour for their respective clubs as Fittler faces the prospect of a new right-side cast.

The NSW coach didn’t need words to explain how much he is grappling with the incumbency of Cleary, considered a decade-long Blues No.7 after helping steer the state to a drought-breaking success at just 20 years old last year.

But the dismal form of Cleary and NSW incumbent James Maloney’s Panthers might force the hand of Fittler, who has Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds nearing an Origin recall.

It’s part of up to six spots Fittler and his adviser Greg Alexander are still yet to make a definitive call on before the most pivotal round for Origin selection this weekend.

Fittler spoke openly about the challenge facing Roberts, who has been shafted from Brisbane’s NRL side, and Panthers prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who is also unlikely to feature in the top grade this weekend.

But he did acknowledge there were still a number of positions he was still juggling.

“Anything up to half a dozen [spots are undecided],” Fittler said at the series launch in Sydney on Wednesday. “I reckon there’s eight or nine that are in, barring a bad injury.

“No one had a clue what we were going to pick last year and we were really confident about who we were going to pick. This year there was always going to be a lot of talk about incumbency and you want to be loyal because you build relationships with people, but my job is to be loyal to the jersey.

No one had a clue what we were going to pick last year and we were really confident about who we were going to pick

“I need to be loyal to having the best possible team that is going to represent our state, inspire young kids and win a State of Origin series.”

Cleary is considered a better chance of preserving his spot than 32-year-old Maloney, who played a leading hand in last year’s series breakthrough for NSW.

Asked whether incumbency worked in Cleary’s favour more than Maloney given his age, Fittler said: “Without a doubt the youth helps.

“As halfback you make a lot of combinations and with other halfbacks you’ve got to make new ones. That’s why I think obviously Adam Reynolds is one. Even with Mitchell Pearce, he knows a lot of the Roosters boys as well. The combination thing always comes up in our conversations.

“Yeah, it’s tough because I like [Cleary]. I know what sort of kid he is and I really gravitate towards him because everyone knows what sort of personality he is. It’s a tough one, absolutely.”

Added Maloney: “If I'm there I'd do a job. I've got no doubt about that, but that's not my call. I don't think much about it because I have so much going on here [at Penrith] that needs to get sorted. That's where my head is at. I don't doubt for a second I'd do a job if they gave it to me again.”

Fittler was set to opt for Brisbane’s Jack Bird as Roberts’ replacement at centre before he ruptured his ACL during Magic Round last week, with Blake Ferguson in the frame for a stunning Origin comeback as Trbojevic’s wing successor.

Dependable Sharks centre Josh Morris has also emerged as a right-edge candidate in another back-to-the-future pick, especially given Queensland will stack their attacking guns down their left side.

And Fittler again stressed the need for players to have off-field distractions sorted in light of Roberts’ benching.

“That whole right side … you wake up in cold sweats,” Fittler joked. “Kalyn Ponga and [Cameron] Munster with chips down that left side. My wife cops elbows [during] 3 o’clock [cold sweats].

“All I know is we need to nail [the centre position] because if you have Cam Munster and Kalyn Ponga coming down that side … if we don’t get that right it wouldn’t matter who else is in your team.

“Every time we try to think of something someone gets hurt. It’s incredibly important and we just keep pushing all our players to get your shit sorted.”

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