State of Origin: The Halves, and the Halves Not

'I play better doing my Seinfeld face' Source: Daily Telegraph

‘I play better doing my Seinfeld face’
Source: Daily Telegraph

Every year NSW fans look jealously over the border and lament Queensland’s rich vein of halves talent. And it’s one of the reasons they have been able to dominate the Origin series for 7 straight years. Oh, along with Cameron Smith, which I’ll come back to.

While NSW have tried valiantly to match them, they have succeeded merely in turning over too many players, not allowing combinations to flourish, and therefore robbed themselves of continuity.

You can’t blame NSW fans for becoming increasingly agitated whenever selections are announced. There are likely some out there whose life won’t be complete unless NSW are again able to lift the Origin trophy. The level of interest, nay, venting, over coach Laurie Daley’s recent decision to anoint Mitchell Pearce as starting half is a testament to this.

Much of the heated debate has centred on the concept of choosing a halfback so early in the season. Clearly this is not the issue, as I’m sure the Queensland side is already picked barring injury or some haggling over the bench. The issue is the fact that Mitchell Pearce has been unable to spark a NSW series victory in 3 attempts.

While this is true, I fear this should not really be the issue either. Despite my own reservations about Pearce’s form in these big games, it is completely wrong to single out a player who makes up part of a halves combination. It is a partnership, after all, and the choice of the 5/8th is more important than people seem to realise.

Todd Carney has not been subjected to the same scrutiny, or intensely felt opinion, as Mitchell Pearce. It should not be forgotten that he has also not lived up to the hopes of many, including the 2010 Grand Final and origin appearances. The fact that a player so lauded has also failed to stamp his authority at this level should ring alarm bells – the combination is wrong.

Awesome talent Source: Courier mail

Awesome talent
Source: Courier mail

Now, I’m a fan of both Pearce and Reynolds, and see them as cast from the same mould as players. They both have a job to do at their respective clubs, which involves more kicking than running. Reynolds quite possibly has a better short kicking game, while Pearce is a more stoic defender. But there’s not a lot in it. Either choice would sit fine with me, but incumbency counts for a lot.

How many gaps must a man bust through ... the answer my friend ... Source: 3newsco

How many gaps must a man bust through … the answer my friend …
Source: 3newsco

The 5/8th is the contentious selection for mine. To offset a half possessing the qualities of these fine players, the 5/8th needs to be a running player who not only engages the line, but asks more questions than the opposition can answer over the course of the game.

James Maloney is clearly the man. As I noted in a comment over at The Roar last week:

“… I’m more concerned with Daley’s pencilling of halves combinations than the half per se.

There are a few options, but clearly the 5/8th needs to be of the running, creative variety if the half is going to be Pearce or Reynolds. You can’t have an A. Reynolds/J. Reynolds combination in other words.

Or Pearce/J. Reynolds. There isn’t enough spark there, and the Maroons would be quietly relieved.

The incumbent 5/8, Carney, should be under pressure in my view. I would prefer the straighter running of James Maloney, noting that Carney’s crossfield style has been easily defended on the big stages of Origin and the 2010 Grand Final. Maloney is a gifted ball player and hole runner, something the Blues need.

Either way, it’s the halves combination that is the real issue, and NSW haven’t had one that can take an Origin match by the scruff of the neck the way the Queenslanders do.”

As much as we refer to a great ‘footy brain’, Maloney’s is up there as a candidate for donation to the Smithsonian’s rugby league display case. And he showed it again last night, just like he has all year, to the point where the commentators are now jumping onto the James-train. His vision sets him apart from other contenders like the Rabbitohs’ Sutton, and even Carney in my view.

However, what of the unspoken combination that is possibly even more important?

That is, the dummy half’s combination with the halves.

Given the way modern play is structured, the dummy half plays an enormously important role in attack, and his combination with either (or both) of the halves is quite possibly more important than the combination between the actual halves.

No longer are they simply the guy who clears the ruck. The best of them are also asking continuous questions of the defence and slow markers, and more often than not running before passing. This sucks in defenders and allows the halves more space by staggering the defensive line and creating holes to exploit, either on the outside or back on the inside.

The more I watch Cameron Smith and the game in general, the more I think the halves combination has actually been superseded by the dummy half’s relationship to his halves.

And which should bring the position of NSW’s no.9 into sharper focus …


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