A marked shift in tactics from Brad Fittler and the Blues sealed Jack Wighton’s fate after the Raiders star made a shocking omission for the state of origin decider.
The Blues went into Game 1 with Damien Cook at number 9 and no backup hooker on the bench.
Queensland, meanwhile, started Ben Hunt as Harry Grant came off the bench and had an immediate impact on the tiresome Blues defenders as the Maroons ambushed NSW in Sydney.
Fittler responded by adding Panthers hooker Api Koroisau to the starting line-up, while Cook moved to the bench for Game 2. It proved a masterstroke as the Blues tied the series in Perth.
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What it meant, however, was no place for Wighton on the bench for Game 3 when Fittler decided to stick with Stephen Crichton and Matt Burton in the centers.
This was despite Wighton being one of the Blues’ best players in the series opener, only missing the showdown at Optus Stadium after contracting Covid.
“That was a tricky one. Sifa (Talakai), the versatility he gives us on the bench was the reason we went with Sifa instead of Jack,” Fittler said Monday.
“We have considered” [playing Wighton at centre] but I think what Matt did in the second game offered just that little bit more. What Jack brings is very different from what Matt brings.
“We have two really young centers there. It’s a very difficult position to play and we’ve probably been a little vulnerable there, so we have some work to do.”
NSW adviser Greg Alexander shed more light on the decision when he appeared on NRL360 Monday night.
“It was certainly not something to be taken lightly and there was a lot of discussion last night as the round ended,” he said on NRL360.
“When we decided that Stepen (Crichton) would stay at the centers with Matt Burton, it was a matter of who could fill a spot on the bench.
“The fact that we have a hooker on the bench made us lean towards a player who could play not only centrally, but also in the back row.”
Commenting on Alexander, David Riccio of the Daily Telegraph agreed that the Blues couldn’t afford to pick Wighton if he didn’t start.
“To me I can’t see how you get Wighton on the bench that Damien Cook already has there and you lose another attacker,” he said.
“You can’t have cook and wighton on the couch.”
CAMERON SMITH’S BIG LATRELL CALL
You guessed it.
It turns out Queensland isn’t too upset about Latrell Mitchell’s decision to sit out Origin III.
Despite only having one game under his belt after a 12-week hiatus, there were loud calls to bring the superstar into the Blues lineup for the decider, before Mitchell himself ruled it out.
And while the great Maroon Smith called Mitchell’s decision “grown up,” he also admitted what we all knew: “Every Queenslander breathed a sigh of relief when they heard it.”
“I thought he was fantastic [against the Eels]he’s obviously put a lot of work into his body to get himself back on track,” Smith said on SEN 1170 Breakfast.
“Round 5 was his last game, it’s been a long time but he looked great.
“I have to say that I was not very surprised by his decision not to make himself available, given that he has played so little football.”
Smith added: “That’s a pretty mature decision from Latrell.
“Not many guys in his position would do that and pass up the chance to play State of Origin.”
“I have to say, from a Queensland point of view I think every Queenslander breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that (Mitchell pulled out),” Smith added.
“Just his ability to break games wide open is that X factor, but at the same time would you change the lineup that NSW took in Game II? That lineup played so well.”
With Mitchell shutting himself out and Jack Wighton unable to secure a spot in the 17, the Blues will line up again with Matt Burton and Stephen Crichton in the centers.