Champion Panthers and Blues halfback Nathan Cleary says the club has come along in leaps and bounds in recent years when it comes to State of Origin selection.
From zero representatives in 2017 to a whopping seven in 2022, Panthers players make up a third of Brad Fittler’s 22-man NSW squad for Origin I.
Speaking with the Weekender before selection last week, Cleary – who will play his 11th game in the sky-blue next Wednesday night – said it’s “exciting” to have so many of his premiership-winning teammates involved this year.
“We’ve come a long way from a couple of years ago when there was only one and now it’s exciting to have a lot of guys in the mix and getting their names tossed about,” he said.
“It’s cool for them and good for the team and the club as a whole.”
Joining Cleary in the NSW side this year is his halves partner Jarome Luai, who made his Origin debut during the successful 2021 campaign.
Also back for another tilt at the coveted shield is powerhouse winger and fan favourite Brian To’o. Panthers co-captain and lock Isaah Yeo will run out for the Blues in his third straight series, while hardworking backrower Liam Martin will line up for his fourth Origin game next Wednesday night at Accor Stadium.
Despite a serious COVID bubble breach in NSW camp last year, Panthers hooker Api Koroisau has won back the trust of coach Fittler and fellow selector Greg Alexander, named back-up dummy half to South Sydney’s Damien Cook.
Koroisau won’t play in Game I next Wednesday night unless there’s an injury to Cook in the lead-up to the match.
After helping secure Penrith its third premiership last October, Grand Final hero Stephen Crichton has been named to make his State of Origin debut.
The 21-year-old centre, who was a development player for NSW during the 2020 series, will play his first game for the Blues next week off the interchange bench.
Canberra’s Jack Wighton will start in the centres alongside Broncos star Kotoni Staggs, with Crichton to wear the number 14.
Speaking with NSWRL Media, the St Clair Comets junior said it was an emotional moment receiving the call-up from Fittler last Sunday morning.
“It was pretty nerve-racking… I was on my way to church practice, and I just seen his caller ID come up on my car while I was driving,” Crichton recalled.
“I had Mum in the car, and it was pretty crazy. I was so nervous to answer it, but I ended up answering it and he told me the exciting news.
“I just remember Mum breaking down, she just started crying. I shed a few tears as well and then after that I got to church and told my Dad.”
Crichton, who has scored eight tries for the top-of-the-table Panthers already this season, said he can’t wait to hit the Origin arena with his best friends.
“Bringing a lot of the boys from the foot of the Mountains to here gives me great confidence to play as well, and they know the way that I play,” he said.
“It will be good to mix and mingle with the other boys and learn off them… I’m just really excited!”
Speaking with the media on Monday, Fittler said his favourite part of the job was informing players of selection.
“Stephen’s phone call was the best this time,” he admitted.
“I could hear his Mum in the background, and I think she was freaking out a little bit. That’s the beauty of this position, is you get to make some really great phone calls and when you first get to see them come into camp it’s a real privilege.”
Despite rookie Queensland coach Billy Slater naming a strong and exciting Maroons side for Origin I, Freddy’s Blues will go into the blockbuster clash next Wednesday night as favourites with the bookmakers.
Kick-off is at 8.10pm, with plenty of tickets still available.
Nathan Taylor is the Weekender’s Deputy Editor and Senior Sports Writer. He also compiles the weekly Chatter on the Box TV column. Nathan is an award-winning journalist, who has worked at the Weekender for a decade.