Blues clues: The rookie, the veteran and the impact of Cleary’s Origin blow

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A barely blooded NSW No.7 or a battle-hardened veteran, back for his first Origin in seven years, will be tasked with saving the Blues Origin campaign as Jarome Luai conceded Nathan Cleary’s series-ending injury could impact his own selection chances.

A six-week hamstring injury to Cleary has coach Brad Fittler surveying the state’s scrum base landscape once more, with Dally M winner Nicho Hynes and South Sydney’s Adam Reynolds considered the front-runners to steer the Blues in Origin II.

NSW must defy 41 years of history at Suncorp on June 21, as they aim to become the first Blues side since Origin’s inception to keep a series alive on Queensland soil and then go on to win a decider afterwards.

Fittler has already conceded his own job is on the line in Brisbane as well.

Monday did at least deliver a sliver of heartening injury news after Cleary was almost certainly ruled out of the series given game three is five weeks away. South Sydney have reported that Cameron Murray’s groin strain is not as bad as first feared and that he is an outside chance of playing this weekend.

As for the No.7 race, the stakes could not be higher, particularly when the circumstances of Hynes’ own Origin debut in Adelaide are considered. Hynes played just 12 minutes as a bench utility and at one point feared he was not going to see any game time.

Nicho Hynes in Origin I in Adelaide.Credit: Getty

Nonetheless, Luai backed the Sharks playmaker as Cleary’s replacement, in the same breath conceding the loss of his Panthers halves partner – so often sighted as a key facet in his own game – could influence his own hopes of retaining the No.6 jersey.

“Maybe, if that’s what [Fittler] sees,” Luai said after watching Cleary go down against the Dragons. “But I’m confident in myself. I thought I did my job last game. And we’ve got a guy like Nicho there with a Dally M [medal].

“He’s been in camp for the last two State of Origin series and he’s ready for it. That’s what footy’s about, getting an opportunity and then stepping up on the day. He’s definitely capable of that and I’ll back him.

“He has [trained] at seven, [trained] at six. He’s just a guy whose been learning the role of every position that he needed to. He’s been in there, he’s watched it all. This is his opportunity and he’s ready for it.”

The Blues hierarchy of Fittler and advisors Greg Alexander and Andrew Johns were in contact with each other almost as soon as Cleary went down, with Parramatta’s Mitchell Moses also an outside contender for game two.

Moses played his only Origin in 2021 when Cleary last missed a match for his state, while Reynolds hasn’t been sighted in sky blue since 2016.

Cleary’s absence has the potential to influence several other selections in the NSW set-up. Club combinations past and present abound among the Blues’ options, not least Cody Walker’s storied partnership with Reynolds at South Sydney.

Latrell Mitchell’s expected return from a calf injury adds further cardinal and myrtle flavour to the mix, while Damien Cook continues to push incumbent hooker Api Koroisau.

Fittler has always insisted his side is jotted down in faint pencil until the final club match of the round, which finishes 24 hours later than usual next week thanks to the public holiday Eels-Bulldogs clash next Monday.

While the Blues queries centre around the scrumbase, Queensland have their own injury issues in the back row. Tom Gilbert’s dislocated shoulder suffered in Origin I is now feared to be season-ending. Middle Jai Arrow loomed as a potential replacement on Queensland’s right edge but he too is now out for the series after undergoing ankle surgery that sidelines him for up to two months.

Veteran back-rower Felise Kaufusi and Kangaroos World Cup tourist Jeremiah Nanai are both set to be available after missing Origin I through suspension, though Kaufusi won’t play for the Dolphins before Billy Slater selects his game two side.

Brisbane’s Kurt Capewell is another tried and tested option out wide, while rookies Corey Horsburgh and J’Maine Hopgood will push Christian Welch – the Maroons 19th man – to replace Arrow on the bench.

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