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Game 2, teams, NSW Blues, Queensland Maroons, Reuben Cotter hamstring injury update, Jack Wighton Covid, Latrell Mitchell

It all looked so straight-forward for rookie coach Billy Slater but State of Origin rarely works that way and now the Queensland coach has a big call to make ahead of Game 2.
Slater is hardly alone too, with Brad Fittler forced to weigh up another selection gamble that he would not have planned on making.

Reuben Cotter (hamstring) and Jack Wighton (Covid-19) were two of the best players on the field in the series opener but now both are expected to miss next Sunday’s game in Perth.

It leaves Slater needing to replace a genuine workhorse in the middle while Fittler has to find strike out wide after Wighton caused all kinds of issues for Queensland’s defense in Origin I.

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BLUES — REPLACING WIGHTON AND THE BIG BENCH CALL

Fortunately for the Blues and Fittler, the answer is relatively simple — they only have to look to their bench from Game 1.

While Panthers center Stephen Crichton was relatively quiet in the 16-10 defeat, the 21-year-old will be a completely different prospect starting the game as opposed to coming off the bench.

Sure, club football does not always directly translate to similar success in the representative arena, but Crichton has already proven himself a difference-maker for the reigning premier.

Take his match-winning intercept in the grand final against South Sydney last year or even more recently his footwork to beat Enari Tuala close to the line against Newcastle on Sunday.

Fittler came under plenty of scrutiny for leaving Crichton out of the starting side in the first place only to have the last laugh after Wighton’s heroics in Game 1.

This time around though the Blues coach simply has no other choice, with Crichton to pose a threat on the right edge playing alongside Panthers teammate Nathan Cleary.

Stephen Crichton is set for a starting role. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Kotoni Staggs will be retained as NSW’s other center after pledging his allegiance to the Blues after being named in Tonga’s squad for the mid-season Test against New Zealand.

Latrell Mitchell could have come into calculations but missed this week’s game with the Dragons after testing positive for Covid-19.

The Rabbitohs center had already been sidelined after suffering a major hamstring injury and Fittler confirmed on Friday night that Mitchell would be unavailable for selection.

“Latrell is unavailable,” he told Channel 9.

“Speaking to South Sydney earlier in the week, given he’d just come back from America and when he got back to Australia he had Covid-19 as well, so I believe he was pretty knocked around. He’s only had one proper session, so Latrell won’t be available.”

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While the decision to promote Crichton to the starting line-up is relatively simple, what it also means is that Fittler will have to find a new bench utility.

There were already calls for the Blues coach to do that even if Wighton was unavailable after Queensland benefited from Harry Grant’s energy and leg speed through the middle.

Former NSW coach Laurie Daley said last week that the utility role “needs to be looked at”, putting Storm speedster Ryan Papenhuyzen forward as an “inspired selection”.

Papenhuyzen though was unable to press his claims for a return to the Origin arena after testing positive for Covid-19 ahead of Melbourne’s clash with Brisbane.

The 24-year-old (knee and hamstring) has been sidelined since Round 9, meaning Fittler would be gambling on his match fitness ahead of a must-win Game 2.

If the Blues want to mirror the Maroons’ success from Origin I, Apisai Koroisau and Reece Robson could come into calculations for a bench spot.

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Reece Robson is a bolter. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

While not necessarily offering cover should injuries strike in the outside backs, the Blues still have plenty of versatile backrowers who could shift to the centers in that scenario.

Koroisau has been in and around the Blues set-up before and knows how to play to the strengths of Blues halves Cleary and Jarome Luai.

“I like the idea of ​​Koroisau,” Braith Anasta said on ‘NRL 360’ earlier in the week.

“I think it is a counterpunch to Hunt and Grant, Koroisau and Cook, I think Koroisau starts the game even, you have Cook coming off the bench having an impact or vice-versa,” Anasta said.”

Robson, on the other hand, is yet to make his NSW debut but The Daily Telegraph’s David Riccio reported last week he is “right in the frame”.

“When you talk about bringing a point of difference off the bench or bringing some leg speed, Reece Robson has been absolutely sensational for the Cowboys,” Riccio said.

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At the moment though, it realistically appears to be a two-way race for that bench utility spot, with Nicho Hynes and Matt Burton competing for the vacant jersey.

The Daily Telegraph’s Phil ‘Buzz’ Rothfield said on ‘NRL 360’ earlier in the week that he texted Fittler asking him about mail that Burton would be coming onto the bench.

“I will be watching the footy closely on the weekend,” Fittler replied.

Rothfield though worried that Burton may not get another chance to stake his claims for the utility spot, reporting the team may be picked before he runs out against the Tigers on Sunday.

Both Burton and Hynes are capable of playing at fullback and center as well as the halves while they could also fill gaps in the forward pack if needed.

Hynes’ Sharks teammate Siosifa Talakai could be a surprise choice though, with Fittler revealing on Channel 9 that he will be watching the 25-year-old “very closely”.

“The beauty of Talakai is he started as a back-rower and he’s sort of a back-rower playing center and doing a great job at it,” Fittler said.

“At the start of the season he was in the middle of the field, so we took that into consideration for the first game. So we’ll be watching him very closely.”

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Fittler will be watching Siosifa Talakai closely. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

MAROONS — RABBITOH SET FOR RECALL AFTER COTTER INJURY

As for Queensland, both Slater and Cowboys coach Todd Payten seem resigned that Cotter will be spending time on the sidelines after injuring his hamstring on Friday night.

Cotter failed to finish North Queensland’s warmup ahead of its 28-26 win over Manly and is set for scans to determine the full extent of the injury.

Neither Payten nor Slater are confidant in Cotter being cleared for next Sunday’s game.

“It’s going to be a fair stretch to get going,” Payten said on Friday.

“For a kid his size, he’s got to rely on speed and power, and it’s really going to hurt him with the hamstring.”

“We’ll still have to wait until Reuben gets scans, but it doesn’t look good,” Slater told Channel 9.

“I really feel for him, he’s worked really hard to get his game to where it is. He was a big part of what Queensland did in that game one, so if he doesn’t play, he’ll be sorely missed.”

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Queensland halfback Daly Cherry-Evans told foxsports.com.au earlier in the week that Cotter was the most impressive of his four debutants in Game 1, running for 119 meters and making 48 tackles.

Should Cotter be ruled out of Game 2, Jai Arrow is expected to earn an Origin recall, either starting at lock forward or coming off the bench with Patrick Carrigan promoted.

Arrow was fined $35,000 and suspended from playing for the Maroons in Game 3 last year after breaching the NRL’s Covid-19 protocols.

But speaking ahead of Game 1, Slater said that incident played no part in the decision to leave him out of the side for this year’s series opener.

“100 per cent no,” Slater told reporters.

“We’ve got a real luxury in that middle forwards battle at the minute. You’ve got to focus on who’s in there, not who isn’t.

“He’s going to need to play for Queensland in the future, I can see that. And he’s got a great attitude. He’ll be ready to go if we need him.”

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Reuben Cotter on the sidelines after being injured in the warm-up. Picture: NRL ImagesSource: Supplied

Queensland will also need to find a replacement for winger Xavier Coates (ankle), with Cowboys flyers Murray Taulagi and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow in contention for that spot.

Both were named in Queensland’s extended squad ahead of Game 1 and while Taulagi is expected to get the nod, he did hurt his shoulder during Friday night’s game.

“I think he’s going to be okay,” Payten said of Taulagi, who was able to play on.

“I questioned whether he’s no good for Origin and he said he was sweet, assuming that he’s going to get picked. He said it was numb so I’m assuming it was a burner.”

Tabuai-Fidow also was forced off with a head knock and failed to return, meaning he would need to pass concussion protocols to put himself in the frame for selection.

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