Blues bolter emerges after Fittler threat
INJURIES and form slumps have left NSW in crisis less than a year after Blues fans were given reason to believe State of Origin was witnessing the dawn of a new era.
But Brad Fittler has no choice - he must add some fresh faces to the 2019 squad.
A clean-out of the old guard and the injection of youth in 2018 allowed NSW to end Queensland's dominance in the interstate arena with a 2-1 series victory, but many of the players from last year's success won't be on the paddock as the Blues attempt to go back-to-back this season.
Outside of injuries to a host of centres, of most concern is the halves.
Last year's pairing of Nathan Cleary and James Maloney combined brilliantly but their form has been abject at club level for Penrith as the Panthers endure a horror season that's delivered them just two wins in from nine games.
It's sparked questions about whether Fittler should show faith in last year's proven performers or reward in-form players at the selection table. If it's the latter, then Maloney and Cleary could find themselves on the outer and someone like South Sydney halfback Adam Reynolds may wear sky blue once again.
And Fittler warned winning would take priority above all else.
"They've come under some real tough circumstances out at Penrith. Off-field distractions. It would help if their form could be a bit better and they could be doing more," Fittler said of Cleary and Maloney.
"They're both disappointed in what's happening out there.
"We need to pick a team that's going to win."
Reynolds has been on fire and is a major reason the Bunnies sit second on the ladder, having won eight of nine matches. His kicking game has been the best of any half in the competition and it's led to speculation he'll be rewarded with NSW selection for the first time since 2016.
NRL great Bryan Fletcher said Reynolds was playing better now than he was when first given an Origin gig.
"Their halves are just (on fire) … Adam Reynolds played for NSW a few years back, he's in better form now," Fletcher said. "His kicking game definitely (is better).
"Obviously the Wayne Bennett factor (has helped him)."
Reynolds has flourished under Bennett's guidance since the master coach's arrival from Brisbane, and South Sydney has rocketed up the table while his former side the Broncos languish down the bottom.
Sports broadcaster Russell Barwick said: "I don't know what he puts in the water, Wayne Bennett, but he's got them all believing in themselves."
If Reynolds gets the nod there's every chance he could be partnering in the halves with Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary, who has piloted the Chooks to the top of the ladder with eight straight wins.
But Keary's taking nothing for granted, ignoring the outside noise as he closes in on a dream State of Origin debut for NSW next month.
Even if the smirk on his face suggests he knows he's hot favourite to wear the No.6 or No.7 jumper for the Blues' series-opener against Queensland on June 5, Keary is refusing to let on.
"It's head down for me at the moment," Keary told Fox Sports' NRL 360. "There's still a while to go. For that stuff to happen, everything's got to fall into place for you.
"You've got to be in good form, (have no) injuries.
"It's good that everyone talks about it but it's not really for me."
The Clive Churchill Medallist in the Roosters' grand final triumph over Melbourne last October, Keary has clearly carried that form into 2019.
But it only takes a quick check of the Dally M leaderboard to know why the 27-year-old has fair reason not to be counting his chooks just yet.
He trails fellow Blues halves options Cody Walker, Chad Townsend, Mitchell Moses, Mitchell Pearce and Adam Reynolds after nine rounds and knows Blues coach Fittler is spoiled for options.
"I've seen Freddie (Fittler) at a couple of games and we've just spoken about footy. Nothing about Origin," Keary said.
"I think they (the selectors) understand too. You've got to keep your head down. We've got a job to do for our club first and then, after we get that done, if you get picked for your state, you go do that.
"But your club comes first at the moment."
If he does get the nod, Keary doesn't mind whether he debuts for NSW at five-eighth or halfback.
"No preferences. I've played zero games. My preference would be just to get a Blues jersey at the moment," he said.
"I'd play anywhere for them and it's still a couple of weeks off. I don't want to be standing here saying I've got a preference about anything other than trying to get a jersey."