South Sydney skipper Cameron Murray is set to hand NSW a huge boost on the eve of the State of Origin series as Nicho Hynes and Jack Wighton wage a shootout for the utility role on the Blues bench.
Murray, who was expected to be ruled out of Brad Fittler’s squad for game one after undergoing shoulder surgery, will undertake a fitness test on Tuesday in a bid to prove his fitness for the struggling Rabbitohs’ clash against the Tigers.
Murray’s imminent return will help alleviate Fittler’s injury crisis, which has already robbed the Blues of superstar centres Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic, as well as bench contenders Ryan Papenhuyzen, Dale Finucane and Victor Radley.
Murray took part in South Sydney’s captain’s run in Dubbo before the loss to the Raiders as he makes a rapid return from mid-season clean-up surgery.
While Fittler has been coy about the make-up of his squad for the opening match at Accor Stadium, sources familiar with the situation said the Blues are weighing up a huge call on their bench make-up with Hynes and Wighton closing in on selection.
Cronulla’s Hynes has been in sparkling form, trailing only Penrith’s Isaah Yeo by one point in the Dally M race, while Wighton made a strong return from suspension in Canberra’s resounding win over South Sydney.
Wighton has played the last nine Origin games under Fittler spending time at centre, five-eighth and even filling in at back row.
Fittler is tipped to go with six members of the table-topping Panthers in his 18-man squad, including centre Stephen Crichton.
Crichton and Brisbane gun Kotoni Staggs are the frontrunners for the centre positions in the absence of Trbojevic and Mitchell, who were instrumental in NSW’s thumping series win last year. Matt Burton had been considered as a centre, but is understood to have dropped in the pecking order.
Crichton took the intercept that fired Penrith to grand final glory last year, and his outstanding early-season form has him on the cusp of a first Origin call-up and a potential combination with Jarome Luai and Brian To’o on the NSW left edge.
The blow of Trbojevic, in particular, will be a huge one given Fittler has provided the Dally M Medallist a licence to roam on either side of the field for the Blues, terrorising Queensland alongside Mitchell last year. Trbojevic saw two specialists on Monday and was told he requires season-ending surgery after dislocating his shoulder in an attempt to stop a Parramatta try last Friday night.
Murray’s likely return will help Fittler solve any issues as an edge back-rower, with St George Illawarra’s Tariq Sims, who was outstanding as a surprise call-up last year, firming to win a spot in the Blues’ 18-man squad.
South Sydney coach Jason Demetriou said Fittler could even pick Murray without another NRL game under his belt before the start of the Origin series.
“We’ll assess Cam at the start of the week and see how he pulls up later in the week,” Demetriou said.
‘Fittler is tipped to go with six members of the table-topping Panthers in his 18-man squad’
“I think if he doesn’t play this week, he’d still be right to play Origin I. That would be a decision for the physios and ‘Freddy’ [Fittler] and our staff. It’s not like he’s been out six or eight weeks, so his conditioning is still decent.”
The Blues are banking on Sims’ ability to play as both a second-rower and middle forward, which is likely to be his position when he joins Craig Bellamy’s Storm on a cut-price deal next year.
But Fittler is facing a huge call on the make-up of his middle forward rotation.
Payne Haas and Junior Paulo are walk-up starters pending getting through this weekend unscathed, with Fittler needing to consider the form of Jake Trbojevic and Daniel Saifiti, who started in the front row of last year’s game one blitz in Townsville.
Paulo’s Parramatta teammate Reagan Campbell-Gillard – and even North Queensland’s Jordan McLean – have also been on the radar of selectors in recent weeks.
Fittler will name an extended squad of 22 when he finalises his team on Sunday night. The four players not in the 18 will be released to play for their clubs in round 13 should they not have a bye.
It means Fittler is considering a specialist fullback in the extended squad – such as Parramatta’s Clint Gutherson or Penrith’s Dylan Edwards – to cover for Tedesco given the loss of Trbojevic and Mitchell. Hynes has also spent time at fullback for the Storm and Sharks. Gutherson filled in at centre in all three matches of Queensland’s shock 2020 series win.
Mitchell Moses, who made his Origin debut in game three last year, is a candidate to return to Blues camp as back-up for Cleary and Luai, and kicked the Eels to a controversial win over the Sea Eagles with a clutch sideline conversion.
Penrith’s Api Koroisau could ghost Damien Cook at hooker.
NSW players and officials will be COVID-19 tested twice a day during their camp in Sydney as they try to win a fourth series in the last five years under Fittler.
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