Brad Fittler and the New South Wales selectors have an enormous decision ahead of them as they face a must-win Game 2 in Brisbane in two weeks. With Nathan Cleary's hamstring injury went the player Fittler has built his State of Origin tenure around, the first player he selected for each game, and the on-field director of all that the Blues aspire to achieve.
Apart from two games, Cleary has been the New South Wales halfback since he made his Origin debut in Game 1 of the 2018 series. It was also Fittler's first year in charge, so his coaching fortunes have been intrinsically tied to Cleary. The Panthers' half has played in 14 Origin games, winning seven and losing seven. New South Wales won the first two series, but have lost two of the last three and are once again under pressure being down 1-0 going into Game 2 at Suncorp.
Of the two games Cleary missed, the first was a decider in 2019 where Mitchell Pearce stepped in and guided the Blues to victory, the second was a dead rubber Game 3 in 2021, where Mitchell Moses pulled on the No.7 jersey in a two-point loss to the Maroons on the Gold Coast.
This moment presents an opportunity for Fittler to prove his coaching prowess. Will he try something unexpected and shock the Maroons, as he did with Pearce in 2019? Should he bring in some Rabbitohs magic, with former Bunnies teammates Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker? Is it worth giving Moses another shot? Former Blues coach and rugby league font of all knowledge, Phil Gould, thinks Moses is the man.
"My personal choice would be Mitchell Moses... he's got a lot of aspects to his game that I like," Gould said on Channel 9.
"If there wasn't a Nathan Cleary around, he would have played another half dozen Origins. He came into replace him once and I didn't think he was all that bad on the night and he will be better for the experience.
"He has still got speed, he has got a great kicking game -- his long kicking game would be invaluable in Origin -- and he creates points. I just thought that he would fit the bill nicely... if I was coaching, he would be my first choice."
The most obvious choice for Fittler is also the least creative. Nicho Hynes is the reigning Dally M player of the year who has been carving it up at halfback for the Sharks. He was on the bench for Game 1, where he was plainly underutilised. The least destabilising and safest move would be to hand him the No. 7 jersey and leave Jarome Luai at five-eighth. Play them on different sides of the field and instruct them to create their own mischief with their share of the outside backs.
But, does Fittler really believe that Luai will be as effective without Cleary? The much-touted reason for selecting half of the Penrith Panthers each year is the established on-field relationships they share, the intimate knowledge of each other's games, the unspoken connections. The mythical magic that has the Blues staring down a third series loss from the last four, beaten by a starting Queensland spine that don't play club football together.
Would a Hynes-Walker combination be the way to go, especially if Latrell Mitchell is there to work the Rabbitohs magic down the left-hand side? Should Matt Burton be brought in from 18th man to partner Hynes, adding his dangerous kicking and running games to the mix? Is Hynes too inexperienced to handle the burden of halfback in such a big game?
I'm sure Fittler already knows which way he is going to go. All the outside noise has never bothered him, and certainly never stopped him from making an unpopular selection or two. However, the pressure on this decision is enormous, as a loss here will see calls for Fittler's head -- if there hasn't been already. The argument that it is time for someone else to take better advantage of the Blues fabled talent superiority will only grow louder.
If Fittler is the best coach for New South Wales, he will not only make the right call on Cleary's replacement, he will ensure that the team plays better, despite the loss of his star No. 7.