The State of Origin teams for the series opener in Adelaide on May 31 have been named, and there were a few surprises. Blues coach Brad Fittler was asked to explain a few of his selections, in particular Bulldogs prop Tevita Pangai Junior. Fittler admitted he was taking a leap of faith in calling him up for his Origin debut.
"We had to make big calls," Fittler told Channel Nine.
"I have been a fan of Tevita for a long time... very skilful, tough bloke.
"I like what they are doing at Canterbury at the moment. They are not winning every game, but what they are doing is they are not giving up.
"Watching what he is doing off the ball excites me that he is becoming a much better player. If Tevita can fix up those parts of his game, the talent part is already there."
Anyone who has watched most Bulldogs games this year would have been excited about Pangai Junior's return from injury. The club had been battling to dominate in the trenches with injuries taking out prop Luke Thompson, star backrower Viliame Kikau and others. They were being pushed around in the middle of the ruck and no team is winning consistently off the back of that.
Since his return Pangai Junior has helped the Bulldogs, without ever dominating. He has been finding his feet again and battling to overcome his tendency to make unforced errors. Under fatigue his defence has also been found lacking, something that greater match fitness would hopefully fix. He looks like a forward with plenty of size and plenty of potential. The problem is, he's been in the game long enough -- 127 NRL matches -- for that potential to be realised and his performances to be more consistent.
Pangai Junior has long had a reputation as an enforcer and has had his fair share of judiciary trouble over the years. He has definitely calmed that side of his play down this year, which contradicts the suggestion from some that he has been selected in Origin to sort out the Maroons forwards who were seen to bully the Blues in 2022. He himself has said that Origin rules are different, which would have have rung alarm bells at the Bulldogs, who can't afford to lose him to suspension.
So does Fittler tell him to rip right in, or encourage him to concentrate on making the hard metres and slipping the occasional, well-controlled offload? You can bet the Queensland forwards will pile on, hoping to goad him into a loss of self control.
"Teams are intimidated by him," Fittler said.
"I think at times that he hasn't handled that too well, but I've always liked him.
"He's super-talented and it's a matter of him getting to that next level of control and showing leadership. When I've spoken to people at Canterbury, they say he's a great trainer and he prepares excellently.
"If it's a risk, then let's gamble."
So, will this prove to be a genius move from Fittler? It seems as though that question has been asked many times during his tenure as Blues coach. He has a history of making selections that baffle and his record as an Origin coach hasn't exactly justified this approach.
Last year Fittler dropped Josh Addo-Carr and Jake Trbojevic, the coach left stunned when the Blues' performance in the opener lacked the character he expected. Surely, by now, Fittler realises that certain players provide that character and others follow, and there are no better examples of passionate Blues than Addo-Carr and Jake Trbojevic. And yet, this year it's Damien Cook who finds himself out of the team, another player who bleeds Blue and is always there when the battle is at its fiercest.
Ironically, it was Jake Trbojevic's dodgy calf that resulted in the selection of Pangai Junior. For Fittler's sake and for the mental wellbeing of all New South Welshmen, let's hope the hulking Bulldogs forward has a blinder in Adelaide. If he fails to perform and the Blues lose, the axe will be sharpened, Fittler and his quirky selections and bare-footed strolls across stadiums will be on the chopping block.