NSW will rely on an untested halves pairing to create State of Origin history following the shock withdrawal of injured Penrith five-eighth Jarome Luai.
Having begun the week confronted by the reality of selecting a new halfback to replace Nathan Cleary (shoulder), Blues coach Brad Fittler has been left to also cover the loss of Luai, who is out of the series with a knee injury.
The Blues are attempting to claim the first Origin series 3-0 nil clean-sweep since 2000 – a task made all the more difficult by the double-injury blow.
Scans have revealed Luai suffered a medial ligament injury in his left knee during the Panthers win over the Eels.
Luai will be required to wear a brace for at least the next week and the Blues coaching staff were unwilling to carry the 24-year-old into camp in the hope that he proves his fitness in time for kick-off.
Jarome Luai hurt his knee in the clash on Friday night. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images
Blues senior advisor Greg Alexander confirmed Luai was out of calculations with Raiders pivot Jack Wighton his replacement, providing he came through unscathed from Canberra’s clash with the Gold Coast on Saturday night.
“He won’t play. Jarome’s no chance of playing. It’s very disappointing,” Alexander told Fox League.
“We need a new halfback, a new five-eight, which will be Jack Wighton, so now we need a new 14.”
Wighton is likely to partner Eels halfback Mitchell Moses with South Sydney’s Adam Reynolds, also under consideration.
“I watched Mitch [Moses] last night; from my point of view, he did a really good job, got them out of trouble,” Fittler said on Triple M.
“If he doesn’t play and his kicking game isn’t that good then Parramatta needed to score four tries [to win], I think.
“His kicking game was fantastic. It was unfortunate that he didn’t get that goal at the end but it is what it is.”
Either way, a Wighton-Moses, or Wighton-Reynolds halves combination is one the Blues have never experienced.
Wighton has played seven games for NSW – five times at centre and twice from the bench.
Luai (R) made his debut in Game One of this year’s series. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)Source:Getty Images
The Blues search for key replacements emerged in the wake of another issue ahead of the July 14 clash.
The Melbourne Storm held urgent talks on Saturday with the NRL over concerns they could be stripped of their State of Origin stars due to a nervous Victorian Government.
The Victorian Government is unwilling to provide a written guarantee to the NRL that Melbourne-based Origin players including Josh Addo-Carr, Dale Finucane, Cameron Munster, Christian Welch and Felise Kaufusi will be allowed to skip 14-days of quarantine upon their return from Origin III.
The Government have only indicated to the NRL and Storm that the players will be exempt – but won’t document the promise in writing.
Despite bidding for Origin III at AAMI Park, the Victorian Government are reserving their right to withdraw any exemption should a Covid-19 spike in either NSW or Victoria.
It has left Storm officials nervous that their biggest names could be forced to isolate and ruled out of the NRL competition for up to two weeks after State of Origin III.
The Storm have been told by the NRL that they must release their players.
The entire NRL and both the NSW and Queensland State of Origin teams are operating under strict Level-4 Covid-19 protocols.
An NRL spokesman confirmed discussions with the Victorian government are ongoing.
“Like last season, our players are in strict biosecurity bubbles to ensure the health and safety of our communities,” a spokesman said.
“We are working closely with all governments to ensure the same exemptions as last year apply and we are very confident they will.”
The NSW team will set-up their Origin III camp at Magenta Shores on the Central Coast while Queensland will reside on the Gold Coast ahead of the July 14 fixture.
The Origin stars will have no contact with the public and will only leave their team hotel to train.
NRL CEO Andrew Abdo was yesterday weighing-up a host of alternative options in the unlikely scenario that the Victorian Government ordered the Melbourne-based Origin players into quarantine.
Abdo has told the Storm and has vowed to ensure that no team loses players due to quarantine measures related to border control.
One option is to relocate the entire Storm franchise out of Victoria -possibly to the Sunshine Coast – for a short-stint after Origin III and ahead of their next clash against Newcastle in round 18.
In a developing story, the issue for the Storm isn’t when their Origin stars leave to join their NSW and Queensland counterparts, it’s when they return.
Currently sailing alone on top of the NRL ladder, the Storm won’t consider playing without their biggest names.
The NRL has booked a charter flight from Melbourne to pick-up the Storm players and drop them to their respective Origin camps in NSW and Queensland.
Fittler will name his NSW squad for Origin III on Sunday night.
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